Deborah Robbins Millman / HSUS
By Deborah Robbins Millman
It is morning and most of the raccoons in The South Florida Wildlife Center nursery are still asleep in their hammocks. As animal caregiver Maria Vanegas begins preparing their bottles, a chittering sound, akin to the trilling of the “troublesome” tribbles from Star Trek, swells as they realize food is on the way. Inquisitive noses emerge, then the youngsters thrust out their paws, as if to say, “Me first!”
Maria carefully measures the customized formula, then heats it to between 102 and 110 degrees — the temperature their mother’s milk would be. Wearing a mesh mask and latex gloves, she gently plucks one of the raccoons from his quarters and weighs him, as she does daily to track each patient’s growth.
The caregiver’s mask, which resembles a camouflage beekeeper’s hood, is worn to reduce the likelihood that these impressionable youngsters will habituate to humans. By hiding our features while we bottle feed, the raccoons are less likely to associate humans with food. We want our rehabilitated raccoons to stay wild – and far away from people, pet-food dishes and trash cans!
Maria works efficiently and quickly to get all of the youngsters fed. They grab greedily at the bottles and suck lustily; one little guy refuses to let go of the empty bottle when he’s done. We bottle feed the youngest ones four times a day – at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
There are more than 60 young raccoons at the Center, ranging from a few weeks to a few months old. After they graduate from bottle feeding, the youngsters are fed “mush” then work their way up to solid food including grapes, melon and a species-specific diet designed to meet their nutritional needs. When they are old enough, they are moved from the nursery into outdoor habitats.
As the nation’s highest-volume wildlife hospital, having that many youngsters on board is typical. In 2016, The South Florida Wildlife Center admitted 887 raccoons; during the first half of 2017, we have taken in nearly 500.
Caring for just this one species takes multiple people several hours a day. In addition to feeding, their care includes veterinary treatment and vaccinations, cleaning, enrichment activities to keep them wild and daily monitoring of their growth and overall condition.
At about the same age as they would leave their mothers, we set them free in areas away from people and pets. The raccoons we have now will all be released between late summer and mid-fall.
Most of our raccoons are orphans – mother raccoons often give birth in attics, under mobile homes and in other “inconvenient” areas, leading to many sad and unfortunate ends. Sometimes, good-intentioned but ill-equipped homeowners scare away the mother, then block her re-access, not realizing she has a litter inside. Or, a “pest” remover traps and removes the mother (which is often illegal), leaving her helpless babies behind.
What many people don’t know, and what we are eager to share with them, is that you can humanely convince a mother raccoon to leave your attic or porch and take her family with her. Most mother raccoons have multiple nest sites, in case predators or other perils threaten their primary spot.
Often, playing a radio (at reasonable levels) near the nest can convince a mother to move her children to a better site. Lights focused on the area and/or a bowl of vinegar near the animals’ entry way can also be effective. Once the raccoon family moves along, their access point must be blocked off so that no uninvited guests return.
Raccoons are charming creatures that are fascinating to watch from a distance – and they can be good neighbors. For instance, raccoons eat wasp larvae as well as other pests, including small rodents.
But these cute little bandits are not pets. We raise them to remain wild, as nature intended them to be. Raccoons can carry a variety of diseases, including rabies, so it is important not to handle them without taking precautions. I often marvel at how many people think they can get rabies from squirrels or opossums (it is unlikely) but hand feed raccoons – which leads to nothing but trouble.
Don’t worry, though, if you see a raccoon in the daytime; unless he is behaving erratically, there is little cause for alarm. Raccoons are most active at dawn and dusk but they will forage for food during the day.
Taking a few simple steps, you can live in harmony with these wild neighbors: Simply make sure your home is “invasion proof,” keep tight lids on your garbage cans, feed your pets indoors and take care not to leave any other food sources in easily-accessible spots. If you have any questions, licensed wildlife rehabilitators like us are here to help!
Deborah Robbins Millman is director of outreach at South Florida Wildlife Center. An affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States, SFWC is the nation’s highest-intake wildlife hospital, admitting about 13,000 animals annually.