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Wild Pets

by Ken Root 

Every spring Mother Nature bursts forth with new life.  It is my favorite season as winter cold yields to a stronger sun and vibrant green replaces dingy brown.  The animal kingdom awakens too and the prime instinct of every species is to reproduce.  Inevitably, there are females who hatch their brood or birth their young and then die.  The offspring are helpless and wonder into intersection with man.  Curious or compassionate people then decide to scoop up the little defenseless animals and take them home.  It usually leads to a bad outcome but the period from forest foundling to death or reintroduction can be a learning experience or at least quite entertaining.

I’ve learned my Wisconsin niece has four baby raccoons in her house and is raising them since their mother was killed on the highway.  The raccoons are doing fine but it appears she isn’t.  They were nursed through their most vulnerable period and are now little eating machines who have imprinted on humans or at least have no fear of their handlers.  The babies, in the last Facebook picture, are about half grown and so active that all but one have to be locked in the bathroom while the lucky individual is fed.  They’ve learned to pull toilet paper off the roll and the result is good only for the makers of Charmin.

We had pets like these when I was a child and not because my father was a soft hearted animal lover.  Sometimes baby squirrels were brought home after the mother was shot and then they climbed the tree to find a nest full of little ones.  Entertainment was the only real reason babies were fed with eye droppers or toy baby bottles.  The outcome was obvious from the initial encounter: these animals were going to die.

Literally all species learn behavior from their parents, especially higher mammals.  The ability to survive in the wild is low, even with the best of motherly care.  To take a bunny or bird and raise it in captivity means it has to stay there forever.  Otherwise it goes into an environment for which it is not suited and is either killed as prey or by its own kind because it is an outsider.

Of course, we never think of this when fluffy little rabbits are found in a hole or a baby raccoon is on the porch.  I learned from a “Raptor Rehabilitation Center” that owl chicks imprint on the first moving thing they see.  If it’s a human, they will spend their life trying to hang with us.  As a result, this center received all rescued offspring with the handler dressed in a bizarre looking owl costume and placed them in a large confinement where other, permanent resident, owls took care of them.  The director proudly said there was one adult male who would feed as many as thirty chicks each season if they would leave meat for him to tear up and deliver.

When I was about nine years old, we got a call from the neighbor saying their dog had killed a mama skunk.  Her son, just older than me, climbed under the barn and found her babies. The neighbor asked if we wanted one.  My mother should have just said: “No” right then but she took me over to get it.  He was about four inches long and cute as could be.  He grunted a lot and ate anything you’d feed him.  We built a box with hail screen on the front and put him in the back room next to the cellar door.  We were living in the old red house at the time and it was a dilapidated structure.  The only insulation was wallpaper and the exterior was native sawn one inch thick boards with weathered red paint from at least twenty years earlier.

I played with the little guy who I named “Stinky” for a couple of days until my niece and nephew came to spend the night.  David was five and Jan was two.  Late in the evening, when I was in bed, Jan was still fascinated by the critter so she got him out of the cage and put him on the floor.  She was wearing corrective shoes which were heavy and hard.  Stinky apparently scared her, so she stomped him.  We knew of this almost immediately as the scent permeated the whole house.  My mother was frantic as she ran in and saw a dead skunk on the floor with a screaming little girl.  I was angry at my nephew as I found he had opened the box for her. 

It was not a good night as the house stunk like skunk and three kids were upset.  My mother had to be asking herself how she could have gotten into this situation!   Early morning, she was up and explained what happened to my father.  For once, he didn’t say much but seemed eager to get out of the house.  Later in the day, my niece came in and asked grandma if the skunk was dead.  When my mother acknowledged it, she asked why he was running around in his box.  We all went in to look and there was the little guy grunting and scouring the area for food.  It was a strangely joyous occasion as Stinky had come back to life.  We moved his cage outside, and downwind, and kept him another few months.  He apparently had been “de-scented” by the corrective shoe stomp as he could never again shoot his defensive odor, even though he tried.  We took a short vacation that summer and my brother, their father, turned him loose.  I would later see skunks cross the yard and always wondered if each one might be Stinky but was smart enough not to find out.

I think there is some educational value in seeing native creatures up close and even more in caring for a helpless baby that hasn’t yet opened its eyes.  It puts the pieces of life together as we realize the young must have protection and care or they will perish.  I hope we also learn that lives are not lived totally by instinct, but by teaching, and the habits of man don’t make bottle raised pets capable of becoming anything other than beggars. 

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