“Awww…” I said, “look how cute it is”.
That was the first time.
One came waddling into our yard, its bright eyes shining from its perfect little bandit mask.
“Look at its little hands”, I said, “they’re so adorable”.
That was just before it climbed onto our stoop and stood up against our screen door, peering into our house, totally unfazed by the two adult humans that were suddenly frozen and creeped out by the brazen attitude of this chubby raccoon.
“Do something”, I nudged my husband.
He stepped loudly toward the door and made a shouting noise.
The raccoon looked at us with, I swear, an amused smirk on its face, and kind of sardonically backed away from the screen – still on its hind legs, little hands up in fake surrender, like, sure, okay man, I’ll go. For now.
I grew up in the Interior of British Columbia, in a small town. I do not remember ever seeing a raccoon before moving to the West Coast as a young adult. I saw plenty of coyotes, lots of deer, the occasional moose, and even black bears were not uncommon sights. But this familiarity with wildlife did nothing to prepare me for the urban raccoon.
Fast forward a few years. I am no longer married. I own a nice little house, with a nice little yard. Everything is going along fine. Then one day I notice that my dog has scrunched herself underneath a bookshelf in my livingroom, and is peering at some point on the floor with laser-like attention.
I didn’t think that much about it at first, assuming that it was just some new place that she had decided was her spot to be. But over the course of a day or two, it became obvious that my, somewhat brainless, little mutt had staked out the spot under the bookshelf like a detective in an unmarked car. Her posture reminded me of Snoopy, hanging over the peak of his dog house: a grim sentry refusing to miss a single clue that might arise.
Finally I got down on the floor and saw that the spot at which she was peering with such intensity was actually a small hole in the hardwood. I remembered then that when I first bought the house, the previous owners had told me that they had drilled that hole, and there were others in other rooms so that stereo wires could be run to speakers throughout the house by going down into the crawl-space.
I had replaced much of the flooring in the house a while back, and so had covered all the little wiring holes but this one: the dog’s new obsession.
There was something going on in the crawl-space. Oh. Great.
For some time previous to this, I knew that raccoons were intermittently hanging around our backyard. We would sometimes see them, lazilly strolling across the deck, or picking their way along the fence top. My son had long suspected that raccoons were using the narrow space outside his bedroom wall, between the side of the house and a garden shed, as some kind of path to get from the backyard to the street. He could hear them now and then, late at night, as they squished themselves past, brushing up against the wall as they ran. Whenever we looked out there, we didn’t see any evidence of damage, so we didn’t take it too seriously. They never seemed to get into the garbage, or pick anything apart, and they didn’t attempt to get into the house (we thought) or threaten the dog. So, I naively let them be.
“They’re so cute and clever”, I thought.
“They’re not really hurting anyone”, I said.
“We’ve displaced them from their natural habitat, how can we blame them for coming into our yards?”, I righteously wondered aloud.
Poor, poor, innocent girl I was.
I recall being positively enchanted the first time I saw a raccoon washing its darling little hands in our swimming pool. When we saw one wading down the steps into the water we practically peed our pants with the rush of warm-hearted communion with nature.
Now I know better.
Now I would happily run forty feet of extension cord through the house, and stay awake for a month watching, for one chance at tossing a toaster into the pool should a single raccoon dare to step foot in it.
It went like this:
When Lily – the dog – went from just peering down the pencil sized hole in the floor, to doing a curcuit of surveilence from heat register to heat register throughout the house, I knew something was really up. I dreaded opening what was sure to be a can of worms I didn’t want to deal with, so I kind of tried to ignore it for a few days, hoping against hope that Lily was simply remembering seeing a spider or something crawl up out of a heat register once, and was waiting for it to return. She once saw a rabbit outside our front door, and she still runs like a maniac to that exact spot every single time she goes out that door: poised for bunny attack.
One afternoon, around this time, a man from the gas company came to read the meter. He knocked on the door when he was done, and said that he had noticed that the metal screen that should have been covering a vent into the crawl-space had dropped out of place, and suggested that I should check it, because – he said ominously – “something could get in there and really cause you problems”.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll take a look right away,” I said. But in my head I was really saying something like: I don’t suppose you’d like to go back out there and stick your big stupid head into the hole and see what happens then, would you, Mister Helpful?
My whole “I am woman, hear me roar” thing went straight out the window. I was no longer a strong, capable, single independant woman – no, I was more along the lines of bitter ex-wife, whining about how this stuff was man’s work. I just really did not want to wade into this, but I also didn’t want to be that sissy girl that gets ripped off by exterminators because she’s too weak to just friggin’ do it.
I went out and found the screen and the open invitation to my crawl-space. I also found a mostly decomposed sketeton of what had clearly been a raccoon!
What the hell?
Had my yard become the place where the local raccoon gang held their rumbles? Was this poor bastard the victim of a turf war? Had his body been placed there as some kind of warning to rivals – like when you hang a dead fox outside the hen-house? Do raccoons nudge their elders out to die in side-yards like Eskimos on ice floes? Or, more menacingly, had these bones been laid there as a threat to me? Good God, what were these evil little rodents trying to tell me?
In a sweat, I ran straight to Google. I didn’t want to just hammer the screen back into place.
“What if they’re still in there?” I worried. “What if they have babies in there?”
Oh, no. I surely didn’t want to pose any kind of threat to the poor little things.
What. A. Putz.
The internet advice ran the gamut from teasing them out with treats, to what calibre bullets it would take to whack them. I settled on a scheme I thought made sense and did not involve expensive exterminators or gun-play.
The idea was this: soak a bunch of tennis balls in household ammonia, and fire them into the hole. The strong smell will make the raccoons want to break camp and get the hell out of there. The second part of the plan was to then tack a couple of sheets of newspaper over the hole, and leave it all alone overnight. When you go back to check the next day you will be able to tell if all the raccoons have vacated, or if they just went back into the hole, by what direction the paper was broken. I sprinkled ammonia all around the entrance, and the ground outside, and the composting bones of the unfortunate victim or either gang violence or raccoon ageism.
A couple of liters of ammonia, a dozen cheap tennis balls, and some newspaper later, I was feeling pretty good about this clever and humane solution I’d found. I wandered into the back-yard with a mind to check the inside of the shed which backed up against the scene of the crime. I hadn’t really used that shed for years, it wasn’t all that convenient in the yard, and so we’d just stored a bit of old lawn furniture in there, and an outgrown bicycle or two. In fact, I’d encouraged ivy to grow all over it, and hardly ever opened the door – sure in the notion that, of course, it was closed up and fine.
FYI: a closed and latched door does not nessesarilly ensure the security of any structure.
What I discovered inside that shed was a literal shit-storm. Completely unbeknownst to me, I was the slum-lord owner of Raccoon Central. Club Coonie. The most bad-ass raccoon hangout this side of the Fraser River. The shed is crammed between my house and the neighbour’s fence. The raccoons had managed to break through the floor boards in two places, making a nice entrance and exit arrangement. There was poop, and chewed up plastic chairs, and poop, and fur, and poop, and broken flower pots, and did I mention poop?
Back to Google!
I was starting to feel a little less compassion for the possible raccoon babies possibly snuggled into the crawl-space. I was also starting to question my long held stance against gun ownership.
The shed is too major a structure just to tear down. It would entail some real demolition, and besides the fact that I wasn’t using it much, I knew it would be considered an asset to someone should I sell the house. I was just going to have to shovel it out and seal up the the raccoon doors. But it’s dark in there, and the ceiling is probably only four feet high. Not the nicest of conditions for interior design. Crawling around repairing holes on the floor that was currently under six inches of raccoon excrement didn’t seem like an idea I could get behind. I learned on the internet that a lot of people used expanding insulation foam to seal up these exact kinds of problems. In fact, companies were even starting to market expanding foam as a specific resolution for rodent trespassers. So I went to the hardware store to buy some, and more ammonia, and whatever else they sold that might encourage these little a-holes to get out of town.
The weather was wet and rainy for days then, and I wanted to wait for a couple of sunny afternoons to air out the stinky shed a bit before venturing inside. Truth be told, I was dreading having to deal with all that poop and mess. So I tossed in a bunch of ammonia soaked tennis balls, sprayed ammonia all around, and sprinkled some lethal mixture of peppers and spices that I found at the store that was guaranteed to irritate the sensitive palette of the discerning raccoon.
Meanwhile, the newspaper I had tacked over the vent hole to the crawl-space seemed to indicate that all residents had vacated, so I nailed the vent back into place.
Over the next week or so I kept checking and re-dousing the shed. My goal was to ensure that the raccoons were irritated enough by the ammonia and pepper that they would leave everything alone long enough for the horrible mess they left me with to dry up a bit and therefore be somewhat less disgusting to remove.
The raccoons did seem to stop hanging out in the shed. Instead they began to wage what I have come to believe was an organized assault. Like low-income residents picketing on the East Side, they seemed determined to cause their former landlord as much frustratiion and anxiety as possible, with just a hint of a threat that something really bad could happen if they didn’t get their way.
I had friends over one evening, and the last few of us wound up sitting out on the deck in the wee hours by candlelight. In the semi-darkness, one friend suddenly felt something furry brush up against her legs under the table. The dog was in my lap, so we came to the sudden and startling realization that it was not Lily under there. It was, indeed, a raccoon, casually checking if we’d dropped any crumbs. We bolted up, I flung on some lights, and there he was: squinting at us like, jeez man, lower the high beams, don’t you know I’m nocturnal?
Dog barking, women yelling, me throwing an empty frozen marguarita bucket. Rocky Raccoon let the plastic bucket bounce off his back. He scurried a few feet away, but then crouched on his haunches and waggled his cunning black fingers at us in some sort of raccoon sign language for “haha, stupid humans, I laugh in your general direction”.
I was growing tomatoes and peppers in pots on the deck. The plump tomatos were just beginning to ripen from green. One morning while I was watering them, I noticed there were single bites taken out of about fifty percent of my little crop. They were hanging, intact, from the vine, but each affected tomato and a number of the green peppers had one jagged little bite-sized sample extracted from it.
“What the…?” I mumbled, bending down for a closer look. Can you imagine, as I did then, a little gang of fat raccoons huddled around the collection of plants, snickering – little hairy shoulders shaking, patting each other on the back with their horrible little hands as they carefully take turns biting into my unripe vegetables: like some sort of raccoon twist on bobbing for apples? And me, only mere feet away, sleeping in my bed just inside the patio doors.
Enraged, I turned to glare at the shed. Hoping that some unsuspecting late sleeper might be still in there, I kicked open the door, and yelled something stupid, like: “Okay, now it’s really on!” I may have added something that starts with Mother and ends with Uckers.
The shed itself appeared empty. However, perched atop the shed’s roof sat Rocky – whom I imagined to be leader of the pack. I was probably only two feet away from his snarky little face. He looked me straight in the eye. I grasped around for whatever was at my feet: an empty ammonia jug – I threw it at him, he avoided the blow like something out of the Matrix and barely budged from his position. I grabbed a handful of the supposedlylethal pepper mixture and lobbed it right up at him: he didn’t seem to notice. When I realized that I still had the running hose at my feet, I aimed the spray at the pompous little creep. The water was enough to make him move back, across the roof of the shed, out of my reach. I could still see him up there though, and I suspect he might have enjoyed the opportunity my spraying allowed him to cool off. The shingles up there are black after all and probably a bit hot on his sensitive little feet.
I continued to curse and throw whatever was at hand until Rocky sidled off into the neighbour’s yard through the trees. That night I sprinkled what was left of the hot pepper and spice concoction that was supposed to repel raccoons around the edges of the plant pots – hoping that if the raccoons approached again they would retreat, having their sensitive snouts and feet burnt by the powerful mix.
As it turned out I think that I only added to their dining experience by so kindly accenting the taste of green tomatos with what must have been a delicious smattering of spice. In the morning, most of the tomatos were gone.
“This,” I declared, “is war.”
I put motion-sensitive spot-lights in the back yard. I poured liters of ammonia anywhere I suspected a raccoon might step. And finally, my son and I tackled the shed. We shoveled and bagged poop, carted out the broken debris of one hundred raccoon parties, and sprayed can after can of expanding foam insulation into any crack or crevice we thought might be big enough for even one little black raccoon finger. The inside of the shed got pretty well sealed up with what appears to be several mounds of greyish merangue.
After that, it appeared that Rocky and his gang had waddled off to someone else’s yard. The remaining tomatoes ripened. I would, occassionally sneak up to the shed during the day and quickly fling the door open, spray bottle of ammonia in hand, just in case – but the floor remained poop free. On hot evenings I even returned to sometimes leaving the patio door off my bedroom open a little for a breeze.
One such night, as I lay in my bed reading, something caught my eye – just to my left. Frozen and suddenly gut-sick, I saw that the “thing” I’d seen moving out of the corner of my eye was, in fact, the slick black shape of a rat – at least the same length as the patent leather size ten sling-back pump that it was currently crawling over.
Silently it scaled the leg of an end table, and seemed to pause to check out a family photograph before it, and it’s equally long inky tail disappeared behind a basket. I knew that jumping up and shrieking – my first inclination – might only drive the horrible creature further into the house. Lily, my dog, lay sound asleep at my feet, sweetly unaware of our guest. I couldn’t see the rat, but I scooped Lily up and tip-toed across the floor with her, putting her out into the hall and closing the door.
I sincerely did not wish to see the rat again. I suspected it was, at this point, hiding itself behind a small chaise-lounge. I thought by now it probably wanted out of the room as much as I wanted it out. Reasoning that it would not move as long as the lights were on, I opened the patio door wider, turned out the bedroom lights, and perched on my bed, trying to stay silent, peering into the darkness for any signs of movement toward the exit.
I crouched on the bed for probably five minutes, irritated but slightly amused by the idea of what an idiot I must look like. I saw nothing, but – my other senses heightened I suppose – I did eventually hear distinct munching sounds. The rat, presumably on its way to the door, had stopped for a snack of dry dog food from a dish that sits just inside. I shifted my weight to try and see, and the rat darted away and into my closet. Fabulous.
I threw the lights on, paced around and swore a bit, keeping an eagle eye on the closet door. It was then I hatched a plan pulled straight from the Sunday morning cartoons of my childhood. I picked up the dish of rat-tempting kibble and made a trail – piece by piece – from the entrance to the closet, and out the patio doors to the deck.
It was two o’clock in the morning by now. I turned out the lights, got back into my bed, and lay like a staring corpse – blankets pulled up to my neck – praying that the rat not take a detour and climb up there with me.
“This will never work,” I told myself, “I am not Bugs Bunny, and this rat is not Wyle E Coyote.”
Barely breathing, I eventually heard some muffled munching. I don’t know how long I lay there. I finally dozed off, leaving the outcome to fate. I awoke sometime later, crawled across the bed and peered hopefully down. The kibble path I’d laid was gone! I jumped out of bed and stepped out onto the moonlit deck.
Chuckling and pretty proud of myself, I must have set off one of the motion-sensor lights. On the edge of the circle of brightness it cast, I noticed a shadowy shape. As I watched, a chubby, shuffling raccoon stepped forward. Sitting back on his hind legs, bright eyes shining through his perfect bandit’s mask: Rocky.
Had the rat been an emissary of this furry little gangster? Was the rat like some little tweaker that was trying to gain the approval of the big boss? A reminder that it could have been worse? Was I in the middle of some nocturnal animal version of Good Fellas?
“Well played,” I said.
Rocky just tilted his head, raised his little black hand, and gave me what I can only imagine to be the raccoon equivalent of the finger.
Ultimately, I think the raccoons just got bored with me. I do not believe any amount of pepper or ammonia or bright lighting could really have deterred them had they decided to stay. After dark, they rule the neighbourhoods, plain and simple.
I am left with the memories. And a crawl-space full of tennis balls.