Wednesday, December 18, 2002

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
When No One Is Looking...
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Over the years I have released enough young raccoons to make it hard for me to separate the details of any single juvenile raccoon release from another in my mind. I can recall countless images of small furry paws reaching out of a transport carrier to feel a nearby branch, leaf or fern frond. Then the head emerges from the carrier bringing eyes, nose, and ears to task to add to the information being gathered by the sensitive paws. Like most young animals upon their release, raccoons tend to be extremely timid and slow to leave the relative safety of the transport carrier. The majority of orphaned raccoons arrive at PAWS at an age when they would still be in a den. After going from a den in the wild to a cage at the center, release into a world without artificial restrictions on movement must seem rather intimidating. The initial hesitation, however, is always overcome by curiosity, and the scene always ends with one or more gray-brown bodies disappearing into the brush trailing that distinctive black-ringed tail behind them.

Pygmy Owl

This northern pygmy owl is currently under care at the PAWS Wildlife Center.

Adult raccoon releases are a different experience altogether. They have felt enough ferns, twigs and leaves in their lifetime that the objects no longer seem to hold the same fascination for them as they do for the juveniles. Having experienced a world without cage walls before arriving at PAWS, they are generally less reluctant to leave the carrier and they often exit as soon as the door is opened. Of the handful of adult raccoons I have released, most of them have turned to face me immediately after exiting the carrier. They then back away towards nearby cover without taking their eyes off of me. It's encouraging to see these formerly damaged animals putting up a strong defense against a predator, but I always wish that they could step out of the cage in the absence of my influence. What would be their first course of action if they were free of the urgency to evade immediate danger? This question was partially answered for me during a raccoon release that took place in January of 2001.

The "releasee" was a raccoon that had been sent to the PAWS Wildlife Center by Seattle Animal Control. After spending several weeks in our care recovering from a respiratory infection, he was ready to return to the wilds of the greater Seattle area. The park in which he was released had a large wooded ravine with a small stream flowing at the bottom of it. I placed the transport carrier near the bottom of the ravine about ten feet away from the stream bank. I situated it in such a way that the raccoon would see only abundant cover and flowing water. I then opened the door, moved about 20 yards uphill, and stood quietly next to a tree waiting for him to exit the cage.

As I stated earlier, most adult raccoons would have been out of the carrier as soon as I opened the door, posturing and backing towards cover. They are all very much individuals, however, and this raccoon preferred to sit tight for awhile after he was provided with an exit. A few minutes passed before I saw a furry body leave the carrier and begin to wander in an erratic zigzagging pattern through the underbrush. The raccoon's ears were erect and his eyes were bright, but he seemed to be relying mostly on his twitching nose for guidance. He moved with a purpose, as if he had detected a scent trail that interested him greatly. Had he discovered another raccoon? Or perhaps a mouse or other tasty morsel? I could not be sure. What I could be sure of though was that his chosen path was bringing him ever closer to the spot in which I was standing.

Raccoon Release

Two juvenile raccoons disappear into the brush at their release.

The raccoon seemed to be so intent on following his nose that he was giving very little attention to his other senses. There was no detectable movement of air in the steep-sloped ravine, so the picture that his nose was painting for him was very limited in its range. I continued to stand still as he zigzagged ever closer. When he was about ten feet away from me he must have finally caught my scent. He stopped suddenly and slowly raised his head, interested but not yet concerned. The twitching of his nose continued, but he was now clearly using his vision as much as his olfactory sense to assess what he had discovered. I watched as he scanned me from the ground up, but he showed no noticeable reaction until his eyes met mine. He was not happy to see me. His ears went from fully erect to flat against his head so quickly that I could barely follow the movement. His back arched upwards and his fur stood on end making him look much bigger. One moment he was a medium-sized curious raccoon and the next he was a huge fur ball giving me the "angry eyes". This was the scene that I was used to seeing at an adult raccoon release, but it is the one that usually played out as soon as I opened the cage door. He gave me a quick snort (although I don't speak raccoon, I'm pretty sure I understood what he meant) before turning 180 degrees and heading back towards the stream.

The raccoon that I had just watched excitedly explore his surroundings was now focused solely on escaping me. On his trip up the hill he had freely wandered into and out of cover and seemed unconcerned when he was exposed. As soon as he was aware of my presence, he was much more cautious in his movement and stayed in fairly thick cover. He moved quickly and quietly to the edge of the water and then headed upstream. I lost sight of him as he rounded a large downed log, but not before I noticed that his ears were back up and he had returned to his original shape and size.

As the raccoon disappeared, I descended the slope to retrieve the carrier with a smile on my face. I wasn't smiling because I took any kind of pleasure in disturbing his exploration of his surroundings. I would have preferred that he continued on his way having never discovered me standing next to the tree. The reason I was smiling was because the animal I had just released had exhibited what is arguably the most critical trait to his continued survival. He had shown the he could recognize humans as a potential hazard and avoid them...

Wildlife Release tally: November 27 to December 10, 2002

1 Northern Flicker
1 Northern Bobwhite
6 Rock Doves
1 European Starling

Wildlife Release tally: 2002 Year to Date
1,201 animals

All rights reserved. 2002 Progressive Animal Welfare Society