True compassion takes perseverance. This became especially evident when I rescued a stranded baby raccoon. True compassion means listening to a subtler voice urging you forward despite the voices of fear and self preservation banging in your ear.
And when I mean self preservation, I really mean selfishness. I had no time for a stranded baby raccoon in my life, not with two-year-old toddlers to care for and a book to publish, not to mention professional development endeavors that I signed on to do. But everyone has the "no time" sob story, and it certainly becomes tiresome after a while, so tiresome one wonders if it is actually legit.
So it goes like this, I climb the last hill of my route in Phillips Conservation Land and I note how out of breath I am, that I am never in top notch shape to take this hill comfortably. Josie has her ball and is content with being the lead, stopping every once and a while to put the ball at my feet and then snatch it just before I kick it. (This Lucy-Charlie Brown scenario seems to amuse her). I get to the top of the hill and there in the leaves beside the trail is this little gray ball of fluff. I look closer and it's squirming, trying to swim up an incline into the woods. It's got those tell-tale markings: raccoon eye mask. There's mosquitoes whining about me and it, circling its tiny pill-size nose. My heart cleaves; it is adorable. Beyond adorable. I ask it if it's okay. Of course it's not okay, it's stranded and scared. But it doesn't look sick. It looks well-fed. Its fur is thick and there's no blood, nor any damage that I can see. Mother raccoons keep their dens high up in the trees, away from predators; perhaps he had a fall and is internally wounded. I look up and see nothing conspicuous, no hole, just the verdant canopy.
When I bend to observe him more closely, coo to him to comfort him, Josie's ears perk up. She starts to sniff the air; she's got wind of him. So I grab her harness and latch her to the leash. We walk back to the car. Due to lack of time, I don't immediately go back. My husband has to leave for work and I have the twins to care for. Also, I remember the drowned baby squirrels in the Kleinhoffers' yard, under the big pine tree. I was five at the time. My brother and I had found the fallen nest and observed how one of the squirrels was twitching. It was still alive. So we showed our dad and he contacted a softball buddy who rehabilitated wounded or sick wildlife. Later we went to see the now healthy squirrel in a cage. I need to get in touch with one of these people.
I make a dozen calls to wildlife organizations and animal hospitals. I either get no answer or a rejection; they don't take raccoons because raccoons are infamous for having rabies. I remember that people who contract rabies get painful stomach shots. When my sister was a toddler she attempted to feed bubblegum to a squirrel. It bit her, not because it was aggressive, we found out later, but because squirrels don't focus on what their eating; they are too busy looking for predators. So the squirrel bit my two-year-old sister and my parents flipped out. We had just moved to northern New Jersey from Long Island. The kids next door said the squirrel was actually one of four that was bottle-fed and raised by the former owners of our house. My parents were never informed of these tame, yet ambitious squirrels, probably because the owners thought it might discourage potential buyers. Jerks.
The doctor told my parents that in order to be sure if the squirrel had rabies or not, the brain needed to be examined. So my parents hired a wildlife officer to shoot every squirrel he saw and for a few days, it was raining squirrels. I don't know how many squirrels lost their heads, but somehow it was determined that my sister was fine, probably because she exhibited no symptoms whatsoever. This is the story I have on my mind when I go back later that day to visit the baby raccoon.
Turns out he was moved. A girl with a nose piercing that resembled devil's horns wrapped him in a sweatshirt and transported him across the woods, away from the trail. I tell her I need to move him back because his mother will not be able to find him if he is so far away. She leads me to him and he's backed up against a fallen tree with his hand-like paws in front of him, as if he's taking a stretch. At this point, I'm terrified to touch him. We guide him onto my sweatshirt and I take him to the place where I first found him earlier that morning. I leave him behind a tree with a conspicuous black gash down the middle of it, say a prayer for him, and trek out of the woods.
The next morning, I continue to have no luck with finding a wildlife rehabilitator who is willing to take a baby raccoon. The one person on the North Shore who does accept raccoons already has thirty. She tells me to call animal control and have him euthanized. I tell her I am not going to do that. I call another animal hospital who takes in wounded or sick wildlife and the vet tech tells me adamantly not to touch the baby raccoon. "But he's not sick," I say. "He's plump. And has nice fur. No mange." She tells me I shouldn't risk it. But I do risk it. I go back later that day with a makeshift syringe filled with Pedialyte and topped off with a baby bottle nipple. I had read up on how to care for a baby raccoon; the first thing you do is hydrate it with electrolytes.
Raccoons are just so damn cute. Songs, poetry, books have been written about them. In Japan in the 1970s, a cartoon called Rascal the Raccoon inspired thousands of Japanese families to buy raccoon babies and have them shipped from North America. These families soon realized that raccoons can be very destructive and opted to release them back into the forests. So thousands of raccoons were released into the forests of Japan where they had no predators. They took over. They damaged 80% of the Buddhist shrines and temples found in the forests by scratching, urinating, and defecating all over them. Japan has since implemented a zero tolerance policy regarding raccoons and tens of thousands of them are destroyed every year. The Buddhist monks, ironically, are in full compliance with this ruthless killing. I can't quite wrap my mind around this idea, because Buddhists believe in compassion for all sentient beings.
So, I go back into the woods in a raincoat and jeans carrying a bag of Pedialyte solution, a syringe with a baby bottle nipple secured with a bread bag twisty tie, and gloves. It's raining softly and the woods is in a full burgeoning green. I am alone and scared and praying that the mother had come back for him. But she didn't, because there he is, curled up on my sweatshirt, his fur undulating with breath. I circle him a few times and he rouses, backs away from me, growling. I try to assess whether this is erratic behavior or just fear. I have rabies on the brain. I position the nipple near his mouth and squirt it. This pisses him off. I try again and get some in his mouth. Mosquitoes are biting me mercilessly, through my jeans, on my fingers and face. One last squirt and the nipple pops off. It starts to rain. He growls and I jump. I am doing him no good whatsoever. I leave him downtrodden, a failure.
That night I go to a dinner for adjunct professors and meet up with my friend Joanne. I am so despondent about the baby raccoon and the fate I bequeathed him, I just mope at the table and talk to no one but her. I share my endeavors with Joanne and she tells me her own raccoon story. I take it as a sign.
Joanne had come to know a raccoon couple who lived in an old rotted-out tree in the conservation land behind her house. They were her neighbors. She saw them from time to time, gathering food. Knowing full well that raccoons were vulnerable to rabies, she tried to get a vaccine for them, but no one was willing to help her do this, because the vaccine was produced in Vermont and she was living in Massachusetts. So the raccoons both contracted the disease. One of them died instantly and the other came to her door, looking for her, as if he were a friend in distress. She was powerless and had no choice to call animal control. The officer secured the raccoon and kicked him into a cage. "Don't worry. It will be destroyed tonight," he said. "It's a living being," Joanne said to me in the parking lot before we parted ways. "Where's the compassion?"
I thought about this; I thought about the value of a raccoon's life. Is it a precious life or is it a dispensable, subordinate life? Most people would think it's a subordinate life and be on their way. It has a smaller brain; it isn't as intelligent as a human. Well, human beings can be pretty dumb, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons. It takes a significant lack of foresight to construct even one nuclear weapon because nuclear weapons are like termites: if you've got one, there will be others and before you know it, you have an arsenal that can destroy the planet ten times over.
Speaking of intelligence, raccoons are climbing the evolutionary ladder fast. They are naturally more intelligent than other mammals because they spend nearly a year living with their mothers; animals that spend a long period of time with their mothers are smarter. Also, there is a link between an animal's ability to manipulate objects and its intelligence. Their hand-like paws can manipulate food sources quite deftly; this is an evolutionary adaptation from prowling around river beds and reaching into the mud for food. Raccoons are now successfully living in cities with Toronto being the city with the highest raccoon population. It is a fact that city raccoons have different brain structures than country raccoons and that these city raccoons are becoming smarter. In fact, we are making them smarter with our different security devices to deter them from food sources; they are outwitting us and debunking our contraptions. These clever raccoons survive and pass that gene of cleverness on and the rest is history.
I am determined not to let the raccoon die. That night, after the dinner, I go to Pet Life in Danvers and buy a bottle feeder and kitten replacement formula, the next best thing to raccoon milk. I tell the woman at the counter that I am going to feed a baby raccoon, but we are deathly afraid of one another. She cheers me on. "You can do it," she says. "Everything's going to be all right." She had rescued all sorts of animals, raccoons, skunks, birds. I tell her he's plump, but the vet tech said he could be sick with rabies. She shakes her head, as if she knows all the hullabaloo about rabies and raccoons and doesn't buy it. "They don't get sick as much as you think." I ask her if I could bring the raccoon to her the next day, if I am having trouble feeding him, and she gives me her hours. "Sure," she says, "I'll get it down 'em." I leave feeling hopeful.
The next morning I wake at 6:30, dress myself in jeans, a sweatshirt, a raincoat, boots and stock my bag with a hand towel, Pedialyte, the bottle feeder, the syringe and gloves. I douse myself with Off and take Josie with me for moral support, packing three tennis balls to distract her. We enter the woods and the air is musty and humid. We walk toward the tree with the black gash and when we are close, I tie up Josie and leave her with her balls. I carry my bag over to the raccoon, who is there again, curled up on my sweatshirt. I put the bottle of milk near his nose, and he perks up. I wrap him in the hand towel and take him in my hands and offer him the milk. He coos and chirps. He tries to grasp the bottle with his hands. At one point, he even purrs. I can feel his feisty heart thumping between my fingers; he is light, barely a pound. It is just like holding a kitten, a thing with paper bones and air for muscles. But that thumping heart, it tells me he wants to live. I get some milk down him and it starts to rain, so I pack him into the reusable shopping bag with the towel and sweatshirt and take him home.
I found a wildlife rehabilitator in Wrenthan through Tufts Wildlife Clinic. These people are hardcore animal lovers, real Saint Francis types. He's doing fine now, I hear, and nursing like a champ.
I'm not sure where this love for animals comes from; perhaps my paternal grandmother, who once found a baby bird and nursed it back to health by feeding it spaghetti and meatballs. Or perhaps I've just had my fill of suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh says "suffering is always there, around us and inside us, and we have to find ways that alleviate the suffering and transform it into well-being and peace." In this world where suffering, like water, is the path of least resistance, I want to be the pump. You don't see water flowing uphill; it flows downhill. In order for water to flow uphill, you need to add energy, a pump. This will get the water to people on higher ground. In order to combat suffering, you need a spiritual pump; you need to exert your own time and energy to bring well-being.