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Wednesday, June 28, 2006 06:24 am

Rocky's Road

The hairy tale of a missing raccoon

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Dusty's nature view

Normally, I’m not what you’d call an “animal person.” I don’t think twice about eating chicken or beef or wearing leather shoes. I gave our last cat away when the doctor discovered my (human) baby was extremely allergic to felines. And I must confess, I actually guffawed the first time I saw the classic animated short (and I do mean short) titled “Bambi Meets Godzilla.”

So I was a bit shocked last month when I stumbled — almost literally — over a mess of fur and fell in love. I was watering the flowers outside my office window when I sensed something watching me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a pile of baby raccoons, so close I could have stroked their sleepy heads.

They were stacked atop one another willy-nilly, like the lunchmeat and cheese on a sandwich slopped together by my adolescent son. Only a couple of the coons cared enough about my presence to lift an eyelid. Their nap continued even when I brought a photographer to their nest. He got a good look at them through his long lens. I had counted only three babies, but he showed me there were really five.

Their mama was nowhere in sight, but she hadn’t abandoned them. Instead, she had stashed them in a safe place, which just happened to be right outside my window.

See, I work in a basement. My window looks out onto the concrete wall that lines a long, narrow well between the Illinois Times building and the parking lot. It’s at the end of this 4-foot-deep pit, just below a big Dumpster. As you might guess, the “view” has never been anything to brag about — until, that is, the raccoons moved in. Suddenly, even my upstairs colleagues wanted to visit my dungeon desk.

Of course, raccoons being creatures of the night, I didn’t get to see their personalities until I ran late on a deadline. After sundown, the babies put on quite a show, scampering along the well, pawing at the window, playing patty-cake with my editor through the glass. When their mama appeared at the top of the concrete wall, the babies sang and chattered, begging her to hop into the pit. Every time she did, they would latch onto her teats and nurse as she scooted along, like a bunch of little hobos hanging onto a moving freight train.

Three stayed in the well; the fourth seemed to travel back and forth with Mom. But I always wondered about No. 5. After a few days, the coon family moved out — I think into a storm drain on South Grand Avenue — and still, no sign of No. 5.

Now, about this time, I started getting phone calls from someone who is a deeply committed “animal person.” In fact, this caller is associated with the Citizens Advisory Committee for Sangamon County Animal Control, and she was upset about something she heard had happened to a baby raccoon.
Apparently, an animal-control officer who had called in sick inadvertently left a baby raccoon in the back of her take-home truck for a day or more. This coon — whom the caller insisted on referring to as Rocky — was revived by staff and driven to Carpenter Park to be set free. But sadly, the caller said, Rocky expired en-route.

Jim Stone, the director of the county health department, told me Tuesday night that he’s trying to find out what really happened.

“We’ve had a tip that allegedly there was a raccoon left in a truck. We are getting very conflicting information in our investigation of this matter,” he said. “That’s really all I have. It’s very conflicting information. I can’t get into details.” He refused to even confirm that the coon actually died. “Even that’s a debate. Seriously! I’ve got two different versions: One it’s alive, one it’s not,” Stone said. The officer in question has voluntarily resigned.
But whether the coon died or just played possum, I can see this incident from a couple of different angles. On the one hand, it’s a raccoon, not someone’s personal pet. And animal control is an agency that euthanizes cute cuddly creatures every day — though typically not by the roasting-in-the-back-of-a-truck method. On the other hand, this agency is also charged with ensuring that we humans treat animals with some decency. As another concerned caller told me, “Here we have an instance where the people who by statute are supposed to investigate and make sure people are humanely treating their animals — don’t.”

I don’t know whether to care or not. If it was Rocky, as the caller insists, I feel mildly melancholy. If it was No. 5, I’d have to feel profoundly sad. I think I’ll go back to not being an animal person again.

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