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Releasing the Ring-tailed Orphans

 

by Kevin Mack - PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

The PAWS Wildlife Center receives dozens of orphaned Raccoon kits each summer.  The kits come to us for a variety of reasons.  Some are separated from their mothers when they are removed from attics and crawlspaces.  Others are orphaned when their mothers are hit by cars.  Still others are found all alone, often thin and weak, the fate of their mothers unknown.  While the highly adaptable nature of Raccoons sometimes causes frustration for those who come into conflict with them, few can deny the appeal of these charismatic, masked mammals.  And rarely is the appealing nature of the Raccoon on such vivid (and often comical) display as it is during a Raccoon release.


Throughout the months of September and October, 55 orphaned Raccoons raised by PAWS were returned to the wild.  Thanks to an ongoing partnership with King County Parks, most of the Raccoons were released in gorgeous, pond or streamside habitat in large, King County Natural Areas.  The following photos will give you a feel for what it was like to watch them make their transition back to a world without walls.

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Going from an enclosure to the wide open world can be intimidating at first. It is common for juvenile Raccoons to explore within reach of their release carriers for awhile after the door is opened.
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For some reason, many of the Raccoons take more than a passing interest in the carrier that they have just exited. Perhaps the novelty of the new setting makes the familiar object suddenly seem out of context.
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For a few of the Raccoons, the release carrier becomes something of a safe base from which they can assess the lay of the land.
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There is only so much within reach of the carrier though, and it eventually becomes clear to them that they will need to leave the carrier behind if they want to properly explore all of the sights, sounds and textures this new world of freedom has to offer.
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The new textures are the most enticing motivators for the young Raccoons. Much of the information a Raccoon receives about their surroundings comes in through their extremely sensitive paws. The Raccoon in this photo became mesmerized by the feel of damp moss just outside his carrier door.
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We released one group of Raccoons under a large, Bigleaf Maple tree near a stream. They immediately exited their carriers and began rooting around in the leaf litter with their paws and noses. They were frequently seen popping morsels of food, likely slugs and snails, into their mouths.
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One young Raccoon that was released near a large pond was startled by a Bullfrog that jumped into some tall grass at the pond’s edge. After the initial surprise wore off, the Raccoon ran over and searched the grass for the meal he had just seen escape.
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The sound of flowing water is an irresistible attractant for Raccoons at release. They just can’t wait to get out of their carrier and dip their paws in the stream.
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This Raccoon seemed mesmerized by the ripples in the flowing water.
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The Raccoons’ reliance on their sense of touch combined with their affinity for water has led to the widely held belief that they wash their food before eating it. In reality the “washing” motion that they are performing in the water is an effort to more thoroughly assess, through their sense of touch, what they are about to eat. The Raccoon in this photo was feeling something she had just picked up off the bottom of the stream. She eventually popped it into her mouth and ate it.
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Although they are always tentative about their new surroundings when their carriers are first opened, it is amazing how quickly nervousness is replaced with excitement in the young Raccoons at release. Five minutes after exiting their carrier, these two Raccoons were already working their way confidently upstream..
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We do our best at PAWS Wildlife Center to set up the animals’ enclosures to simulate their natural environment. Raccoons in our care can forage in pools of water, dirt, and leaf and bark litter, find mealworms in rotten logs and climb to their heart’s content. Still, there’s no substitute for the real thing, and at their release the Raccoons show a level of excitement that is never seen within the confines of a cage.
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Among the 55 Raccoons, there was one that came into our care at a much older age. He was already weaned, and old enough to have done some exploring outside of the den before he arrived. For him, freedom was well-remembered rather than something novel. When we opened his carrier door, there was no hesitation. The last we saw of him was a streak with a ringed tail disappearing into the bushes near a pond.
 



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