At first it was cute. The raccoon would sit in the crook of the 100-year-old female Buckeye tree and gaze down at us. My family would stand on the wooden deck, gazing back. We were mutually fascinated with each other, and, like most standoffs, no one was showing any sign of backing away. Slowly inching closer and closer to the tree the family moved until we were right beside the deck rail separating civilization from nature. With a frisky leap, he could have landed in our arms.
We examined his little handsâ€"or paws, or whatever you call a raccoon's upper appendagesâ€"his classic black mask, his beady little eyes, his ever-alert, shaggy ears. "He looks like Batman," praised one son. "He looks like he can talk," said the other hopefully. "He looks like he's mad," said I, ever The Mom, once again putting the kabosh on all their lofty hopes and dreams. "This is not a Walt Disney movie where he sings, dances and rescues our family from disasterâ€"stay away from him."
"Awwwwwww." Dashed were the hopes of a family pet. A new playmate. A prize to lord over their IPod, Xbox and Nintendo DS-laden friends. They slunk into the house as I cast a menacing glance backwards.
The raccoon who came to stay
The days turned into weeks and quickly became a game. Just like "Where's Waldo?" or "I Spy" we would scour the tree for the raccoon. Often, it was where we least expected itâ€"on a lower branch, in the crook of a tree, or even on the ground.
If we didn't see it, we assumed it was gone forever. Moved on to another lucky family, like a silent hobo. The boys were audibly disappointed when we did not see it, and I admit, I missed the ritual too. It was like waiting for the mail. In our neighborhood, sometimes the mail comes before noon, sometimes before 3, sometimes at 5:30 p.m. and sometimes not at all.
Soon our neighbors joined the game. "He's living in your chimney!" the family of three little girls announced excitedly from across the fence. "There he is!" shrieked the first-grader. "I see his tail" added the fourth-grader. "I am going to look from the front," announced the sixth-grader importantly, running to the front of the house.
"I have the name of a pest control guy," said their mother, putting the kabosh on her daughters' zeal as I had done with my sons earlier. "When we had a squirrel trapped in the house. I called, and he immediately came out that evening and caught him."
Wait a minute. It had never dawned on me that it wouldn't just go away on its own. You mean to tell me, this thing was Living In My House? That changed everything.
The raccoon had now been properly identified as a Pest. We had been having so much fun competing to see the raccoon that I completely forgot he was a wild animal, capable of destruction, reproduction, rabies and other disgusting things. What had been a competitive game of hide and seek was now an invasion by a beast.
My heart sank. My stomach bottomed out. I hated this raccoon. I dreaded seeing him. Worse, I couldn't get at him. I had assumed that if he wasn't in my tree, he was out roosting in someone else's tree. Now I knew he was probably up in my chimney.
I started walking to the southern part of the yard and pressing myself against the fence. On cold, rainy spring days, there was no sign of him on the roof.
Because, I learned while climbing our front stairs, he was curled up in a matted ball on the lower roof of my northern neighborsâ€"my new neighbors whom I hadn't even properly met yet. Bonding with them over an invader was not how I envisioned welcoming them to the neighborhood.
On fair days, he would sun himself, content in the knowledge that no one could touch him. He would often elaborately groom himself, combing his stomach with his paws. Even the "Critter Detectives" couldn't scale the sharply pitched roof. "We had a skunk in our yard, and my dad rented a cage and put a twinkie in it," said one boy helpfully. "When we caught the skunk, there was a half-eaten twinkie in it."
As a kid, we topped our Christmas Tree with a handmade angel created by my brother in the first grade. It had loopy eyes and a crooked mouth and my dad called it "the woebegone angel."
I had my own live woebegone angel/devil on my roof.
And he wasn't going away.
The raccoon grew in bulk. It was alarmingly large. It occurred to me, "he" could be a femaleâ€"a pregnant female. Oh dear lord.
"Go away," I said out loud to the lumpy beady-eyed animal. "Go away now."
"No thanks; I think I'll stay right here."
I jumped. It was my new neighbor standing on the other side of the tree with his father. His parents were visiting from Texas, checking out the couple's new house. "I was talking to the raccoon," I stammered, laughing apologetically. "Oh, is he out?" the neighbor said. "We've been watching him out our windowâ€"he lives in your chimney."
Did the whole world know? Why am I always the last to know?
"We had problems with squirrels at our old place; we have the name and number of the guy who removed them. If you want, we'll split the cost," said my neighbor.
I had definitely gotten lucky in the new neighbor department. Maybe they would split the cost of sending my sons to college too! He wrote the name "Critter Detectives 630/916-7678" on a piece of paper. Back home, I optimistically smiled, and dialed.
Getting Professional Help
Lou Ocasio answered the phone and calmly took control of the situation. He listened to me patiently offer more information than was needed. And he was out the next morning in his truck and placed a cage on the lower edge of the roof, by the tree which served as the raccoon's ladder. "Couldn't get up by the chimney," Lou said. "Roof's too high."
I felt a sharp pang of foreboding. He would not catch this raccoon. I just knew it. That damn raccoon would live in my chimney, and I would become one of those old ladies you read about who have all kinds of weird animals living in her Victorian.
Like any despondent person, I symbolically "folded up my tent." Our family went to dinner that night at Winberie's, where I ordered a half-bottle of wine to drown my sorrows. "We're hiding from our raccoon," I dismally announced to a family I knew who was also dining out. "We can recommend Critter Detectives," they announced helpfully. I felt somewhat better, but maybe it was the alcohol kicking in.
Every morning before 9 a.m. I called and sadly reported the emptiness of the cage. On the third day, Lou said, "We will come out and check the trap to see if the bait is gone. We'll re-bait the trap with something more enticingâ€"like chicken." For the first time, I felt hopeful. There was a new strategy on the horizon. We would not simply wait for this raccoon to notice the trap and be intrigued. We had options! My mind raced. Raw chicken? KFC? Boston Market? Maybe Indian tandoor would have greater scent or allure? I had to stifle myself suggesting a twinkie. Surely what's good for the skunk is good for the raccoon?
"What kind of chicken?" I asked. "Cooked," he said, with a laugh. "Jewel deli Wing Dings." Raccoon junk food. "In the summer we use marshmallows or something sweet because the chicken gets pretty grubby in hot weather; they like strawberries too."
Next week, Part II of the raccoon roundup: Much ado about Lou.