Wednesday, April 9th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Sticky Little Fingers
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Raccoons are known for getting their sticky little fingers into everything. They can't be blamed, really. Much of the information they gather about the world around them is taken in through the sensitive tactile receptors in their paws. They rely heavily on their sense of touch to find food in dark crevices, and in murky water where their other senses afford them little help. When raccoons forage in water, the motion of their paws as they assess each item they discover gives the appearance that they are washing their food. There is even a popular myth stating that raccoons have no salivary glands and must moisten their food before eating it. In reality, raccoons have well developed salivary glands and seem equally willing to eat food that is dry, moist, clean, or dirty.

Watch the Video

Watch as two of the recently released raccoons investigate their new home.

The supposed washing activity seems to be more about identifying an item (through touch) than cleaning or moistening it. So raccoons that appear to be washing an object are actually just gathering information about it. This constant touching, especially when associated with water, seems almost like obsessive/compulsive behavior. This can be used to great advantage when trying to convince young raccoons to leave the safety of their carrier during a release.

On April 4th, 2003, three raccoons were released after an extended stay at the PAWS Wildlife Center. Their stay wasn't extended due to health reasons, but rather due to the timing of their birth. Most orphaned raccoons that are raised by PAWS arrive at the center in late spring or early summer. They grow quickly throughout the summer months and are normally ready to be released by mid to late September. This means that the timing of their release coincides nicely with the ripening of blackberries, huckleberries, Oregon grape and a number of other wild fruits.

Raccoon

After spending the winter at PAWS, this raccoon and her two cage mates were ready to return to the wild.

A readily available food source helps to ease the raccoons' transition back to the wild. If orphans arrive at PAWS very late in the summer, they are often not ready for release until well into the fall. By this time the berries are nearly gone and the weather is less than ideal. Since releasing them in these conditions is not conducive to their survival, late babies may be over-wintered at the wildlife center and released the following spring. The three raccoons released on April 4th all fell into this "late baby" category.

The first of the three raccoons to arrive at the center was an infant female. She was brought in on August 6th, 2002 by a homeowner that had removed her from beneath his deck. She was weak and dehydrated, so returning her to her den was not an option. The second to arrive was a juvenile male that was admitted on September 13th, 2002. He had neck wounds and a vision problem, and had convinced a man that he needed to come to PAWS by following him onto a porch. The third raccoon, a female, was found on a roadside sitting next to her dead mother. It is unclear how long she had waited beside her mother, but she was weak and slightly in shock by the time she was admitted to the wildlife center. All three raccoons responded well to their treatments, and grew rapidly on their respective feeding regimens. After all three were weaned, they were housed together for the remainder of their stay.

During the winter months the raccoons were constantly provided with enrichment materials to stimulate their curiosity and encourage natural behaviors. They in turn provided PAWS staff and volunteers with constant entertainment via closed-circuit television. They tore apart melons stuffed with grapes and smelt, pulled hidden treats out of holes in logs and, keeping with their image, did their best to get their sticky little fingers into everything.

Raccoon

Often arriving as infants, many raccoons take their first steps at the PAWS Wildlife Center.

Although they were not related, they interacted with one another as do sibling raccoons. They played with and groomed one another, and all three slept together in one amorphous furry mass. Together, they endured six months of captivity. It was only fitting that their first steps back in the wild would be taken together as well.

When their transport carrier was opened on April 4th, the three raccoons were facing a shallow stream on private property in Carnation. As I stated before, juvenile raccoons are usually reluctant to leave the safety of their carrier when they are released, but a nearby stream is just too tempting for them to pass up. Four onlookers (myself, two volunteers, and the property owner) stood by and watched, breathlessly. Although we were excited, our breathlessness was partially attributable to the fact that we had just carried the three substantial raccoons about 100 yards through the woods in their transport container. Keep in mind that their six months in captivity included an all-you-can-eat buffet. After a short wait, the stream cast its spell and fuzzy little bodies began to emerge from the carrier.

The raccoons were visibly curious, but they were nervous as well, and their fur stood on end making them look even larger than they really were. They first examined the carrier, walking all the way around it and standing on their hind legs to examine the top. They eventually gave in to temptation and entered the stream. Their characteristic "washing" behavior began immediately as they searched for items of interest below the water's surface. They were wary of the human spectators, but seemed too fixated on everything else they were sensing to offer us much more attention than an occasional passing glance.

Raccoon

Back in the wild, one of the released raccoons pauses for a sip of water.

Their area of exploration grew, and two of the raccoons started checking out the underbrush near the stream. The third continued to feel her way along the bottom of the stream, pausing for a moment to take a sip of water. Watching the three of them was kind of like watching kids in a candy store; they were compelled to touch everything within reach, but they seemed a little unsure of the consequences.

After about 20 minutes I approached the carrier to retrieve it. As I closed and latched the door I hoped that it would be the last container that would ever hold these raccoons against their will. I could tell that they had a similar desire as they regrouped and began to move upstream away from me.

Raccoons Need Your Help!

On average, PAWS rehabilitates about 50 orphaned raccoons each year. Our current pre-release caging has exceeded its useful lifespan and is in need of replacement. PAWS is currently seeking donations to fund the construction of four new raccoon pre-release cages. For further information visit: www.paws.org/work/wildlife/raccoonproject.html

Wildlife Release tally: March 19 to April 1, 2003

2 Rock Dove
1 Band-tailed Pigeon
1 American Crow
1 Mallard
1 Western Painted Turtle
3 Western Grebe
1 Red-breasted Merganser
1 Varied Thrush


Wildlife Release tally: 2003
53 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society