Creative Nonfiction: Unexpected Guests
By Elinor Kotchen
Last summer a family of eight raccoons took up residence in our tulip poplar tree. My husband, Matt, was the first to spot one. We had just put the kids to bed, and he was relaxing on the back deck with a beer. “Come look at this!” he said, rushing inside to find me. There, a hundred feet up, was a large gray creature with a black mask around its eyes. As we watched, it climbed headfirst down the tree, graceful and unhesitating. As it settled itself on a lower branch, I couldn’t decide if it was adorable or menacing.
It appeared again the next night. We started hurrying the kids to bed so we could keep watch each evening at dusk. Sometimes we saw little gray and black faces, far less menacing, peer out from their hidey hole.
That’s when we realized the big one was a she—males, evidently, don’t stick around past mating season. Sometimes the babies would perch on the branch by the hole’s opening. When it was too dark to distinguish them from the knobs on the branches, we’d head inside. That was probably when the real action began, when the mama climbed down to find food for the little ones.
We waited a week, unsure what to do. I kept thinking about an email a neighbor had sent the previous summer. She described sitting on her deck in broad daylight when a raccoon climbed the stairs, lunged towards her, and sank his teeth into her thigh. I worried that Charlotte, our three-year-old, would make a tasty treat.
E. B. White writes about watching a raccoon from the window of his farmhouse in Maine. He conveys such reverence for this agile animal. I admire E. B. White’s essays but don’t share his feelings about raccoons. At least not ones in my backyard that could have rabies or other diseases.
I live in New Haven, a mid-size city. When I moved here six years ago, I didn’t intend to cohabitate with wildlife. Also, our house is surrounded by residential streets. While White’s raccoon may have fed on frogs, insects, and berries, ours probably settled for the neighborhood garbage.
It was with mixed feelings that we called Stoney Brooks, a wildlife removal expert. He’s exactly what you’d expect of someone in that profession. Short and wiry for climbing through tight spaces, strong and sinewy for wrestling feral animals into submission. He came the next day, parking his van in front of the house. “Termites! Pests! Vermin!” the side of the van advertised, for all to see.
He set up four wire cages at the base of the tree, each with a can that looked like cat food. The next day we were to report how many raccoons had been trapped, and he’d remove them.
Neither Matt nor I wanted to look out the window the next morning, let alone go outside. We finally went out together, walking slowly around the back of the tree. The traps were empty, but the cans were gone. The raccoons had taken the food without tripping the cages. Later, Stoney returned to reset the traps. We were to pay him for each raccoon he caught, so he spent the morning fortifying the cages.
Looking outside the next day, I thought I saw something gray and shadowy in one of the traps. This time, Matt convinced me to check. Crossing the yard, I considered which was worse, for the raccoons to look at me with sad, pleading eyes or with rabid hatred.
Before I could decide, I spotted them—two big raccoons crammed into the wire enclosures. No longer babies, they were well on their way to adolescence. Avoiding their eyes, I ran back into the house.
I left Matt to handle things with Stoney while I took the kids to school. As we walked to the garage, I couldn’t keep the kids from noticing the caged animals in the yard.
“Are we keeping them as pets?” Alex, our five-year-old, asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said. Both kids started crying.
“Can’t we keep just one?” Charlotte pleaded.
I managed to coax them into the car, then drove out of sight. When I returned home, Stoney had taken away the cages in his conspicuous white van. We then caught two more raccoons a few days later. We thought that was it.
A few nights passed, then Matt called me outside to point out another one in the branches. We couldn’t tell if it was the original raccoon or a new one. Either way, Stoney still had work to do, and we had more checks to write.
Stoney came the next day and set out three more traps, just in case. The next morning Matt and I stared at the base of the tree in horror. There were three raccoons in cages and a fourth standing on the grass, pressed against the trap with the biggest raccoon inside.
“Seems like that little guy didn’t want to be separated from his mother,” Matt said.
This brought the total number of raccoons to eight. Since the first sighting, I had learned that the average litter is between three and five kits. So maybe some friends or cousins had been bunking up with the others. I had to admire their inclusiveness. And though they may have been gorging on refuse, the matriarch was taking good care of her young.
Matt called Stoney while I distracted the kids. Later, as I peered out the window, I saw Stoney lower a ramp from the back of his van. He then brought out a pole with a wire circle at the end, the perfect size to slip around the little one’s neck. I turned away, unable to look. “Stoney led the raccoon up the ramp without a fight,” Matt later told me. Neither of us asked what Stoney did with the animals once he drove away. I just hoped he would do the right thing.
I’ve had a number of surprising wildlife run-ins. The first of note was when I was seven, and my family was in Florida visiting my grandparents. Saturday was the big night there, when their condo complex had a buffet dinner, with prime rib and stone claw crabs. A jazz band played while the white-haired couples swayed on the dance floor.
We’d just started eating our key lime pie when we heard a scream. All heads turned, probably wondering if old Mrs. Gordon had fallen or someone was having heart trouble. My sister and I darted between the tables to investigate. Next to the buffet line, we discovered that a mother possum and several babies had fallen through a ceiling tile, just missing a tureen of crab bisque. Using a broom, the manager ushered the critters into a storage closet, where he let us look. My sister and I marveled at their little furry bodies as they cowered in the corner. We didn’t think to inquire what the manager intended to do with them.
Then there was the bat incident, when our son Alex was a baby. One August morning, I came into his room to get him from his crib. As I was turning off the air conditioning, something flew out from under the window unit, grazing my hand. I didn’t get a good look but knew immediately it was a bat. I yelled for Matt to help. He hustled out of bed, but said he needed some coffee first.
When Matt finally returned, caffeinated and armed with a tennis racket, the bat was gone. I had seen it fly into the closet, but when we looked inside, we couldn’t find it. Realizing the bat may have spent the night in Alex’s room, we called the doctor. “You should come right in,” a nurse said.
What we didn’t know was that it was bat season in Connecticut. The first two weeks of August are when the babies learn to fly. Because they don’t have their bearings, they sometimes slip through the eaves of old houses. “I give a lot of rabies shots this time of year,” the nurse said when we arrived. “Last summer a couple came in with their two-year-old after they found her chewing on a dead bat in her crib.”
The nurse reassured us that rabies shots are nothing like what they used to be, with painful injections in the stomach. Now it requires four shots in the upper arm, spread out over two weeks. Then she gave us the statistics. “The chance of a bat being infected with rabies is very low. But nobody who’s contracted the disease and didn’t get the shots has ever survived.”
Matt and I agreed that Alex should be vaccinated, since the bat may have spent all night in his room. As for me, the bat had merely brushed my hand. Even if it was infected, I’d be in the clear unless its saliva had entered my bloodstream. “I don’t have any cuts on my hands,” I said, showing Matt.
The nurse waited silently while we deliberated. Then she pointed to Alex. “Don’t you think he deserves a mother?”
So Alex and I both got the shots, that day and then three more times. For a while he was terrified of doctors, convinced that anyone in scrubs wanted to stab him with a needle.
When I later told the story to a friend, she nodded in recognition. She’s had her own bat encounters. “That’s why I always go away the first two weeks of August,” she said.
It’s not that I don’t like wildlife. Or that I even mind the occasional critter in my home. But when I’m in the city, I expect the trappings of city life. When I’m in the country, I’m more prepared for the line to be blurred.
Growing up, we had a cabin in the mountains that wasn’t well fortified against the elements. One time, when we opened the house for the summer, I found my bed filled with dry dog food. Some resourceful mice had found it in the closet and used the pellets to make a nest. More amused than upset, I was proud that they’d chosen my bed instead of my sister’s.
One night a bat flew into the cabin, and we all hollered and ran around. My mom eventually shooed it out the window with a broom. Nobody mentioned rabies or gauged our chances of survival.
The raccoons were another story. When I moved to Connecticut, I didn’t anticipate the skunk, fox, or coyote reported by the neighbors. Or to be woken at dawn to a message warning of a bear in the neighborhood. When I put down the phone, I thought, Stoney has his work cut out for him.
But now I’m starting to wonder—is the tulip poplar really ours to claim? As long as the raccoons aren’t bothering us, couldn’t we just share it? Especially now that Charlotte’s a little bigger and a less enticing snack.
Recently my mom was visiting, and Matt was reminding her of the raccoons. I had told her about them last summer, but now Matt wanted to show her the nest. The two of them stood on the deck at dusk, exactly a year later. As Matt pointed to the hole in the tree, a huge raccoon climbed out. “It’s happening again!” he yelled inside, where I was tucking in the kids.
This time we told Alex and Charlotte, and for a week they joined us every night, peering through the twilight to see how many heads would emerge. But there was only one this time, as far as we could tell. The kids didn’t say anything about keeping him as a pet. Maybe having a resident raccoon was exciting enough.
This one liked to sunbathe late into the morning. He alternated between two branches, the lower annex offering a change of scene. After breakfast I’d stand at the kitchen sink and watch him. When I came outside, he’d meet my gaze, studying my every movement.
Matt called an arborist to discuss whether to seal the hole so another family wouldn’t move in. But we had to consider the sequencing. The raccoon had to be out of the tree before we closed the hole. The tree guy didn’t want to be surprised by a raccoon a hundred feet in the air. He told us that once when he was sawing a branch, blood spurted onto him. “I thought I’d cut myself, then realized I’d sawed through a raccoon inside the tree,” he said.
“No arborists,” I told Matt later. “No more traps, either.”
He nodded, probably relieved to save the money.
Then, just like that, we didn’t see the raccoon anymore. The kids took turns studying the branches through the binoculars, but there was no trace of him. I kept imagining his features in the knots of the tree. But these were just phantom sightings. He must have moved on.
Several weeks have passed, and I still look for him whenever I’m at the kitchen sink. I miss him. The tree seems less interesting now, and evenings on the deck are quiet and uneventful. With any luck, we’ll have a fox or possum to contend with next. But if I have my say, we’ll hold off on calling Stoney.
Elinor Kotchen is a psychotherapist in New Haven, Connecticut. When not seeing patients, she writes creative nonfiction and reads everything she can get her hands on. Her work has previously appeared in Defenestration.