The town is which I dwell is not what you would call prosperous. It’s not as though we have to slalom through bloated-bellied toddlers holding begging bowls as we make our way between the Food Co-op and the Buffalo Bar or anything, but, still, the stench of affluence that defines so many places I have called home does not often waft its way into our social main stream. To wit (and germanely so): When I moved back to Silver City in 2006 after 24 years in Colorado, I worked part-time for one of the local daily papers. Given my past experience with, and my continued interest in, such matters, I volunteered to cover a meeting of the local trails advisory committee that pretty much served as a poster child for the way things sometimes work (and sometimes don’t) in New Mexico, because the main purpose of this particular meeting was to attempt to determine if the trails advisory committee actually legally existed, an exercise in fundamental political theory worthy of contemplation since, if the committee did not in fact legally exist, then how could it convene a meeting of itself to settle that particular matter?
Not long after the meeting was called to order, the group came to the conclusion that, since there were in fact a dozen or so people gathered around a table having themselves a confab that appeared to everyone in attendance to be an actual meeting, the committee must indeed exist, else there would be no one there and, thus, there would be no meeting. This is hard logic to counter. We meet, therefore we are.
Anyhow, given that the committee felt it indeed existed, it jumped headlong into a fairly extensive agenda (whoever put the agenda together was assuredly an optimist, given the tenuous legal standing on the committee), which was something of a disappointment to yours truly, a person who has sat through something on the order of 23,000 meetings during his small-town journalism career. I had hoped the committee would declare at the outset that it did not in fact legally exist, then immediately adjourn, a course of action that would have given me a great article for the paper, without having to actually sit through what turned out to be an unnecessarily long-winded exercise in fundamental democracy. No such luck. Story of my life.
One of the agenda items was a discussion about a lack of signage at the northern terminus of the San Vicente Trail, a critical component of Silver City’s very nice open-space system. The signage-in-question would cost something on the order of $37. For seemingly 75 hours, there was much in the way of head-scratching regarding where on earth the committee was possibly going to come up with $37. A bake sale? Apply to the federal government for a grant? Importing a cadre of bloated-bellied toddlers to walk around town with begging bowls? This discussion went on long enough that I came within a whisker of jumping up (verily, it took every amount of deference to the journalistic code of not investing oneself into the middle of a story where one did not belong to resist so doing), pulling my checkbook out and saying that, if the group would promise to pull the goddamned plug on the goddamned meeting right then and goddamned there so I could wander downtown for a beer, I would personally fund the acquisition of the goddamned trailhead sign. Verily, I would personally endow the entire trail-sign acquisition fund forevermore.
This was indeed a sobering reminder that I was no longer in Kansas, or, more accurately, the heart of Colorado’s prosperous (at least on the surface) ski country. During the last three years I dwelled in Summit County — the busiest ski county in the country — it was my pleasure to serve upon the Frisco Recreation, Open Space and Trails Committee, an entity that has since been dissolved, for the kinds of political reasons that will one day be a component of the armed revolution that will someday come. Though the acquisition of open space formed but one component of our operational mandate, we of course, given our committee’s proper name and all, spent considerable time dialoguing about that subject. And that dialoguing was almost always centered upon the fact that we had literally several million dollars worth of dedicated sales-tax-generated funds earmarked for open space acquisition gathering dust in the bank, because, in fact, there was little in the way of procurable open space left within the town limits upon which we could spend that earmarked cash, cash that could legally be spent on nothing except the acquisition of open space.
It is quite a jolt, let me tell you, to move from a place with several million dollars of open-space funds in the bank that could not be spent because of a lack of procurable open space to a place that has trouble financing a single trail sign.
One day last summer, I found myself at the very trailhead where now can be found that $37 sign. (I do not know by what means the necessary coinage was eventually raised, but, like it often does in New Mexico, a necessary thing was accomplished, as if by magic.) Though we are all justifiably proud of the San Vicente Trail, the trailhead itself is not the nicest place in the world. Located a couple blocks from downtown, adjacent a facility that sells gasoline in bulk to smoke-spewing dumptrucks, the trail follows the only legitimate riparian habitat for near-bouts 20 miles. But, while Ketchum has the Big Wood River flowing through its middle, and while Moab has Mill Creek, and while Breckenridge has the Blue River, Silver City has San Vicente Arroyo, better known as the Big Ditch, a “water feature” that bisects our humble hamlet because, about 100 years ago, a series or flash floods, expedited by over-logging the surrounding hillsides, roared through town, washing away Main Street and leaving us with, as its names indicates, a large swath of ditch that, in addition to providing us with beaucoup shade-making cottonwood trees, gives our sanitation department a perfect place to release water after it has passed through our sewage treatment plant. Ergo: Most of the water that makes its way down San Vicente Arroyo is not what you would call straight from a pristine alpine tarn. It is, rather, primarily a malodorous amalgam of H2O, e. coli and various other forms of detritus.
In addition, given its proximity to downtown, and the fact that there are a couple of fairly deep pools right near the trailhead, the northern terminus of the San Vicente Trail is — how to say this tactfully? — oft-visited by members of Silver City’s social fringe, a demographic that does not seem offended by the placement of broken glass and other forms of trash upon the ground.
Also, to add a little icing to this already unaesthetic picture, the San Vicente Trailhead lies directly under a four-lane overpass for New Mexico Highway 90 as it makes its way south toward Lordsburg.
Though I paint a less-than-flattering picture here, like I said, in this parched part of the country, the San Vicente Trail provides the only in-town place where, during the heat of the summer months, one can take one’s dog for a dip. Besides, once you get away from the undeniably unpleasant trailhead/parking lot area, the trail itself is very pleasant and, also like I said, something of which Silver Citians are justifiably proud.
Still, one does not usually dally at the trailhead. Verily, one usually makes haste from the parking area to points downstream as rapidly as one’s size-11s will move one.
Which is exactly what I was doing that otherwise normal day last summer. Just as I was passing beneath the rattling overpass, though, a sound stopped me dead in my tracks. Though I had not heard that sound in almost four decades, I knew instantly what it was. It took me a few moments to locate the source: A baby raccoon running back and forth on the edge of the overpass — a full 50 feet above my head — searching frantically for a mother that was nowhere to be seen.
The reason I was able to instantly identify the baby raccoon’s cry was that, during the last months of the summer preceding my senior year in high school, I raised a baby raccoon, almost from birth. Even as I raced back to my 4Runner to drive to the top of the overpass above the San Vicente Trailhead, my mind reluctantly journeyed back to 1973, to the fetid swamp country of Gloucester County, Virginia — the very county, I might herein add, where the word “raccoon” entered the English language, via a bastardization of a Powhatan Indian word for “one who rubs and scrubs with its hands.” I had received a phone call from a close friend informing me that she had come upon a female raccoon that had been run over and killed. Still clinging to its mother’s lifeless body was a lone infant. My friend asked if I would be interested in becoming a foster parent to the baby. I was. I did.
This was not my family’s first encounter with Procyon lotor. A few years prior, my stepfather had returned home with a mostly grown male (how and why he did so, I do not recollect) that he immediately and, come to find out, ill advisedly, let loose in the house before even rudimentary orientation was established. The raccoon, which we named (of course) Rascal, made his speedy way behind some half-installed paneling lining our den. All attempts (mostly of the food-based variety) to coax Rascal out from his cozy hiding place were met with growls, snarls and bared teeth. Rascal lived in that wall for most of a week, before both stench and concern for his health and well-being forced my stepfather to come to a hard decision: He had no other choice but to command yours truly to reach behind that paneling to grab Rascal by his head and pull him out.
Despite the fact that I was wearing the thickest work gloves we could find, Rascal still managed to sink a full row of razor-sharp dentition into my right index finger. Fortunately, those teeth were sunk far enough that I was able to extract him merely by pulling my hand out with a combination of pain and alacrity. Sadly, what we then found ourselves dealing with was not a raccoon hiding behind some half-installed paneling, but, rather, a raccoon dangling stubbornly from a bleeding digit born by a yowling high school student. No matter how hard I shook my hand — and, please believe me when I say that I was shaking said hand as aggressively as possible — Bandit, who obviously bore some pit bull genes, would not release his grip. So, I carried him outside, where, with freedom within reach, he let go and ran off.
Thing is, he did not run off completely. Rather, he lived for more than a year in and around one of our barns, where, daily, I brought him a water and dog food. Though Bandit never hid when I approached, the only time he ever let me touch him was the time he showed up sporting a horrible injury to his side. I have no idea how the injury came about, but it looked as though he had been shot with an arrow and the arrow was then yanked out. The wound was so large and deep, it actually exposed some of his organs. I assumed he was not long for this life. Knowing not what else to do, I applied topical ointment to the wound several times a day for more than a week and added some antibiotics to his dog food. Slowly and surely, the wound healed completely, showing, I guess, the resiliency of the species.
Then, one day, Rascal was gone, and did not return.
You would think that experience might well have weaned us off whatever raccoon-as-pet fantasies we might have harbored.
But, when my friend called asking if I would consider taking in an orphaned raccoon infant, I jumped in the car and drove rapidly to a place called Naxera.
She filled less than half the palm of my hand. She looked nothing like a mature member of her species. Her nose was disproportionately long and her ring-less tail disproportionately short. She had fragile claws that did not yet retract. I immediately took her to the veterinarian who lived on the farm next door. This was an old-school vet, one who tended to horses and cows and maybe the occasional bird dog if it was lying at death’s doorstep. He had never before dealt with an orphaned raccoon and clearly did not comprehend why anyone would be interested in taking upon himself the task I then faced. But he always did think I was a bit odd. Nevertheless, he mixed up a formulaic concoction, gave me a soft eyedropper and guesstimated that I would have to feed the young beast every few hours, day and night. He also told me that I would have to help the diminutive, helpless creature with both digestive and urinary elimination procedures, which, the smirking vet said, could be sufficiently accomplished by lightly rubbing a warm, wet washcloth over the necessary areas, mimicking the mother’s unenviable task of coaxing piss and shit from her offsprings’ most-foul orifices via very focused tongue action — yet another reason to strive to live a karmically positive life, lest one get reincarnated as a creature required by the shortcomings of the evolutionary process to pass time thusly.
I undertook the business of, first, saving, then raising, this orphaned animal with a focused zeal I had rarely experienced in my short life. This was less a personality transformation for my ADD self than it was a means by which my attention could be positively diverted from a fractured home life that can best be described as a domestic train wreck feedback loop. My entire senior year, my mom was in and out of a mental institution, which did not add anything resembling stability to what was already a violently anarchistic household. But, in the midst of ceaseless familial fireworks, here I had this beautiful little raccoon baby, which I named “Sloth,” because of the way she used to dangle upside-down from my index finger even before her eyes opened.
Sloth grew to be a great pet, half like a kitten and half like a puppy. She followed me around better than our dog, Beebee (named after the size of her brain) did. She knew her name and answered to it. She also learned the command to sit. I took Sloth camping. I took her to the beach. We went for walks through the thick woods that bounded our farm in every direction. I would put pieces of turkey between my incisors and she would try to use her dexterous little fingers to get at the meat, which proved to be a great source of amusement for me and my perpetually stoned compadres. And, whenever she did not know where I was, she made the exact same frantic sound I heard coming from the overpass above the San Vicente Trailhead.
Even after I was summarily booted out of the house well before I even graduated high school, Sloth remained a loyal family pet. After I left, though, she began visiting the woods on her own. She always came back, but her treks through the dense semi-tropical hardwood forests became longer of duration, until, at last, she was spending more time in the wild than she was in civilization, something I totally understand and respect. Somehow, even though she had never received any species-specific survival training from the boy who rescued and raised her, she learned how to be a raccoon. Evidently, she had made the acquaintance of some fellow procyon lotors who had shown her the necessary ropes for living a wild life.
One day, my mother called and told me Sloth had come home with a full litter of her own, six babies, of which she was evidently extremely proud. She wanted to show her raccoon family off to her human family. I dashed over, but, by the time I arrived, Sloth had already returned to her home in the forest and I never did get to see her brood.
The last time I saw Sloth was when I was home from college in New Mexico for Christmas. She stopped by and I placed some turkey between my incisors to see if she remembered our old game. She did. But, by then, she was much closer to my mom and sister than she was to me, which stung a bit, to be sure.
Later that year, back in New Mexico, I got a call from my mom during, of all things, the middle of an acid-infused strip-poker game. She told me Sloth had been getting sicker and sicker, though no one knew the nature of the malady. There was concern she might be rabid. There was a pause on the phone line, and I knew Sloth was dead. I also knew without being told that her end came from a .22-calibre rifle borne by my stepfather. I was so crestfallen, I asked my half-dressed, tripping partying chums to re-clothe and move on.
And here, in the very same town where I got the bad news about Sloth, I found myself four decades later racing to save yet another raccoon baby! I would not fail!
Sadly, I could not park upon the overpass itself, so I had to drive up the road a bit, where I pulled over on the shoulder and left my dog — who was at that point clearly wondering what had become of the walk we were about to take along the San Vicente Trail — to sit alone in a car parked on a shadeless highway shoulder in the middle of the day in the middle of summer in New Mexico. It was very hot. I grabbed a blanket out of my 4Runner, then dashed back to the overpass, where I quickly located the raccoon, which was not hard, given the high-volumed nature of its pitiful cries.
It quickly became apparent that my rescue attempts were going to be more complicated than I had hoped. This raccoon was probably three or four months old — big enough to be both nimble and to have a full rack of chompers. It was also clearly in physiological distress. At my approach, it retreated to the farthest recesses of an exposed concrete support beam, where it swayed back and forth, as if ready to faint, and, twice, had to react fast to prevent itself from falling down to the very trailhead I had just left.
I wrapped the blanket around my hand and reached slowly to try to grab the little guy, but, each time I did, it retreated and came within a whisker of plummeting to its assured death. It huddled close to the edge, shivering and whining. I pulled out my cell phone and placed a quick call to 911 to report a raccoon in distress. There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “A what in what?” came the dumbfounded response. The 911 lady referred me to central dispatch, which I called in hopes of getting Silver City’s Animal Control Officer on the scene. “Sorry,” I was told, “but he only deals with dogs and cats.” Given the tenseness of the scene, and the severity of the midsummer heat and sun, my fuse was short. “I’m a taxpayer and I need the Animal Control Officer NOW!!!” I shouted. “As I said, sir, he won’t respond to a raccoon-in-distress call. If you think we should change our animal control policy, you can voice your concerns to the town council. Or you could call the New Mexico Game & Fish Department.” I thought my head was going to explode.
So, I started calling friends. Cat was in Idaho. No answer from Julie. Jen, Jaxon and Shawn were at work. No answer from Jay.
My frustration level was red-lining. I spend a lot of time — too much, to be sure — hosting a mental wrestling match between Colorado and New Mexico, and this was one instance when Colorado was winning. Had I placed a call to central dispatch in Summit County reporting a raccoon in distress, I would have been patched through to one of the best animal shelters in the Rockies, and help would have been sent. I thought as I was standing there on the overpass, were I still in Frisco, I could have dialed any random 668-prefixed phone number and throngs of would-be raccoon rescuers would have descended upon the scene so intensely, people would have been elbowing each other out of the way. (I know this may sound a tad over the top, but, at almost exactly the same time I was trying to rescue the raccoon from the overpass, a group of people in Colorado were in the process of rescuing a dog that had been abandoned by its owner at 13,000 feet on Mount Bierstadt. I guess I should add that the Clear Creek County Search & Rescue Team had declined to participate in the rescue of the poor cur, but in Summit County, where I lived, the local SAR group had helped on numerous animal-in-distress-in-the-backcountry calls over the years.)
I finally get through to my animal-loving friend Luan, who was, sadly, unable to come help me. But she said she would try to get in touch with Dennis and Denise Miller.
Those were some seriously soothing words. Dennis and Denise Miller run an outfit called Gila Wildlife Rescue, which, as its name would indicate, is in the (non-profit) business of taking in animals of every phylum and genus imaginable, rehabilitating them and, hopefully, releasing them back into the wild.
I am embarrassed to report that I do not know much about Denise, except that she we raised in silver city and is an equal partner in Gila Wildlife Recue. Dennis I know a bit better. He is a retired biology professor at Western New Mexico University (my alma mater) whose father was also a biology professor at WNMU. He is held is such high and universal esteem hereabouts that he is the final arbiter of all local questions critter related. His expertise cuts across all demographic chasms in these parts. There was one time, for instance, when a buddy of mine thought that he might have been bitten by a brown recluse spider, a concern that caused much in the way of gab at the watering hole I visit most often. There were stories about brown recluse nests and relatives being attacked by veritable herds of this particular loathsome species of arachnid. People related how such-and-such a relative over in Hanover or up on Mangas had come within a whisker of dying after having been bit by a brown recluse.
My buddy, the one who thought he had been bitten, talked to Dennis Miller about it. Dennis told him that brown recluses do not live this far north. That was it. Rugged cowboys and macho bikers and arrogant academics, who, scant minutes before, were relating indisputable stories about epidemic brown recluse infestation in the very town in which we were then sitting, upon hearing that Dennis Miller had rained upon their venomous parade, meekly admitted the obvious errors of their biological ways, meekly saying things like, “Well, must have been some other kind of spider” and “If Dennis says there aren’t brown recluses this far north, then I beg everyone’s pardon for being so wrong.”
A few years back, Silver City played host to a major gathering of, of all strange and maybe even frightening social things, the International Dipterology Society. For a full week, our highways, byways and pathways were populated by scads of extraordinarily geekish individuals walking around wielding big nets, trying to gather specimens from what, we all came to learn, was Gila Country’s impressive array of fly species. One night, several of us found ourselves sitting on barstools next to one of these dipterologists, a professor from Quebec. We tried to make the best fly-based chitchat we could, but, let me tell you, it was a stretch to come up with anything worthy of a professor enthusiastic enough to travel all the way to Southwest New Mexico to study flies.
Grasping at conversational straws, I told him that, if it’s flies he’s after, he ought to stop by the town’s dog park, which, given the sheer quantity of perro caca, is as fly infested as a place could possibly be. Thing is, we told our suddenly perked-up Quebecois fly aficionado, almost all the flies at the local dog park are basic houseflies. “I’ve never known houseflies to bite like the ones at our dog park,” I stated, hoping to add something salient to a fly-based discussion that was fast fizzling. “Well, houseflies don’t bite,” the Quebecois dipterologist stated, to much reactive mirth. “Well, maybe they don’t bite in Quebec, but they sure as hell bite here!” I replied to universal acclamation. This went on for a few minutes, the local peanut gallery, proving our point by way of legs adorned with housefly bites, and a man who, for reasons I will never comprehend, makes his living studying flies.
A few weeks later, I related this conversation to Dennis Miller. “Houseflies don’t bite,” he said, soberly. “What’s biting you at the dog park must be some sort of horsefly that looks like a house fly.”
And that was that: houseflies apparently DON’T bite! I’ll just shut the fuck up about flies right now.
This was the guy my friend Luan was trying to get hold of as I stood there on the overpass trying to rescue a stranded baby raccoon that was within an inch of splatting into a nasty, trash-filled trailhead parking lot 50 feet below.
After a few minutes, Luan called back. She could reach neither Dennis nor Denise, but she left them a message. Luan wished me the best of luck.
What to do now?
The baby raccoon was starting to teeter above the void even more.
There was only one course of immediate action: I picked up the blanket and, without hesitation, lunged at the raccoon, grabbed it firmly within the confines of the blanket, yanked the squirming mass away from the looming drop-off, wrapped the blanket around it several times in hopes of preventing escape and, with arms extended in front of me enough that, should its little noggin pop out, it would not be able to latch any dentition onto my face, waddled back to my parked vehicle, during which time the planlessness part of my plan became glaringly obvious. Somehow or another, I was going to have to get the raccoon into my 4Runner, a course of action made more complicated by the fact that I did not right then have any extra hands to spare, as both were fully occupied in the task of keeping one very motivated raccoon within the confines of a flimsy blanket.
Moreover, assuming I could figure out a way to open one of the doors, it occurred to me that I had no institutionalized means of stowing the squirming creature in my tentative possession. The temptation to simply toss it into the confines of my vehicle was short-lived, as, within that vehicle, as I indicated earlier, was 50 pounds of drooling Lab mix. What my dog’s reaction would have been to having an infant raccoon introduced unfettered into the 4Runner, who can say? Additionally, it’s my guess that the raccoon would not have reacted well to finding itself nose to nose with 50 pounds of curious canine. Given the way things had been progressing thus far, I envisioned a yowling dog face with a raccoon aggressively attached to it, a la the alien in, well, “Alien.”
But, first things first. How to get the goddamned rear hatch open? While firming up my grasp on the diminutive contortionist between my hands, I extended a pinky under the rear-hatch latch and tried with all my pinky-based might to get it to release. It refused to budge. So, I called in digit reinforcements by ordering my right ring finger to aid and abet my attempts. Sadly, at that point, my grip on the flailing raccoon was now down 20 percent. I could feel my already tenuous hold beginning to slip. So, I yet again went for broke, completely releasing my entire right hand from the flailing procyon, opening the tailgate, then rapidly re-grasping the animal before it could escape. At that point, my dog, which had been incarcerated inside the sweltering vehicle for more than hour, decided now would be a great time to leap out onto the side of a very busy highway. Thus, I now had to deal with a dog, who was wondering mightily what on earth her master had within his grasp, and a raccoon, who was obviously wondering mightily about many matters, including, but not limited to, the proximate dog that it could surely by then smell, if not see.
I had to, using solely verbal commands, herd the excited/confused/not-entirely-bright dog back into the 4Runner, getting her to leap not only into the back but over the back of the back seat so as to leave the far back un-animaled, whilst I concocted a transport plan utilizing a stunningly short supply of available appropriate materials. Only then did I realize that I had in the back of my ride an empty box that had, the very day before, been filled with Mountain Gazettes, which had since been distributed around town. Joy! Thing is, I had nothing to cover that box with, at least nothing able to withhold the inevitable escape attempts I would surely be facing once I placed the raccoon within those cardboard walls. I walked around and viewed sitting in the passenger seat hope for a positive outcome: I had recently purchased a Big Agnes Big House 6 car-camping tent that, after much head-scratching, I decided was too big for my needs. I was going to send it back, and, therefore, it was in my car, awaiting a visit to the UPS Store. I did the best spatial calculations I could under those trying circumstances and decided that, yes, that large tent, which was neatly packaged up in expectation of its imminent return to Big Agnes, would indeed fit over the top of the empty Mountain Gazette box.
So, using my right pinky, I got the passenger door open, and, with that same pinky, I carried a 15-pound tent around to the back. I plopped the raccoon, still wrapped in the blanket, into the box and placed the tent over the top. I then carried the box to the passenger seat. I had hoped that perhaps the raccoon would then calm down. My hopes were not fulfilled. Faced with both confinement and an uncertain future, the little bugger went crazy, tearing into both the expensive tent I was planning to return and what turned out to be a dishearteningly flimsy cardboard box.
And there I sat, in the driver’s seat, my right arm extended over the tent, which was atop the box, which was being disassembled by an animal the size of a rat that, somehow, I came to understand, was part Tasmanian Devil.
What to do?
Well, the first thought that entered my head, given my previous history with this particular species of animal, was to take it directly home, where it would join a menagerie that already included the aforementioned dog, a cross-eyed cat with an IQ of 4 and a wife, who would assuredly remind me that the covenants for our subdivision unambiguously prohibit domestic possession of any creatures more exotic than, yes, dogs, cats and wives.
Suddenly, for the first time since this animal-rescue ordeal began, a reasonable course of action visited my cranial mainframe: Very close to where I now sat parked with a flailing baby raccoon in a box covered with a tent was the local animal shelter! If I could manage to get there in one piece, surely, they would have some sort of animal cage into which I could I transfer the creature in my care. Then, I could just wait out the storm until Dennis and Denise rode to my rescue. Thing is, given that I had to use my right arm to keep the raccoon in the box, the process of shifting gears was not easy. So, once I pulled onto the highway, I had to use my thighs to steady the steering wheel while I reached across with my left hand to shift gears. Not easy, not safe, but it worked. Within minutes, I arrived at the animal shelter, otherwise known as the light at the end of this saga’s long-and-winding tunnel. And what was I faced with once I arrived at the place of my imminent salvation? A locked gate sporting a big “closed” sign. It was Monday, and the goddamned animal shelter is closed on Sundays and, yes, Mondays.
By this point, a good 40 percent of the raccoon’s body was sticking out of the box, and my dog could scarcely contain her curiosity. I simply could not believe that the fucking shelter was closed. I was, at that point, well into my “why-can’t-anything-work-out-easily-in-New-Mexico?” mode.
Though the gate was locked, there were a couple vehicles parked in front of the main shelter building, located maybe 150 feet from the gate. I honked my horn a couple times, in hopes that someone inside would be curious enough to investigate. The only effect my horn honking had was to further agitate the raccoon, which, by that point, was more out of the box than in. And the amount of pressure I was having to apply to the tent atop the now partially shredded box was, I feared, going to crush the creature I had worked so hard to save from certain death. I was going to have to re-package the raccoon, lest it escape, necessitating yet another rescue. So, I pulled the box out, shook it hard enough to cause the raccoon to fall back inside, then re-covered it with a multi-hundred-dollar tent that was by this point no longer in a condition that Big Agnes would likely have considered returnable. (Mr. Fayhee, what exactly happened to this tent?” the Big Agnes customer representative would ask. “Well, you’re not going to believe this, but …”)
Then, I pulled the box and its agitated contents out of the 4Runner, at which point the box’s lack of physical integrity finally manifest itself to the degree that the raccoon managed at last to escape.
And, of course, the creature opted to complicate the situation as much as possible as quickly as possible. There’s a tall chain-link fence surrounding the animal shelter property. And there was one chink in the chain-link armor, one small ground-level kink that allowed the raccoon to slip under what appeared to be an otherwise impenetrable fence.
Once again, my frustration level was about to reach a boiling point. I mean, didn’t this little animal understand by now that I was trying to save it? Could it not tune into the vibes I had been for more than an hour trying mightily to focus and send into its obviously dimwitted little brain to let it know that it’s only hope for survival rested in my hands, hands that were by this point thinking in terms of washing themselves of the entire enterprise?
So, there I am, looking at this little raccoon on the other side of a fence, wondering yet again what course of action to take. It began to emit the exact kinds of pitiful cries that first drew my attention from the overpass. It was so weak it could barely move. It teetered like it was drunk, fell over a couple times and could scarcely pull itself upright. And, because of the fence that the stupid little fuck just crawled under, I could no longer reach it. Much to the consternation of my dog, I pulled out some Milkbones and tossed them over the fence in hopes that some sustenance might be just what the doctor ordered. I mean, Sloth loved dog biscuits. But this raccoon was not Sloth; it did not seem to recognize the Milkbones as a food source. I was hot, tired and, quite frankly, ready to bid the raccoon the best of luck making it in a wild that would surely consume it sooner rather than later. Just as those thoughts began to germinate and fester, a car pulled out from behind the animal shelter building and began driving toward the locked gate, which my vehicle was blocking. Turned out it was the shelter’s resident caretaker whose first language was not English. When he asked me what was up, I pointed to the raccoon, which was now partially hidden by a juniper tree, and told him a truncated version of the story. He thought I was telling him that I had rescued the juniper and had brought it to the shelter. This proved to be confusing. Then, out of the deepest recesses of a memory that these days can best be described as hit-or-miss, I remembered the Spanish word for raccoon: mapache. Once I clarified that I was not some crazy juniper rescuer, he quickly came to realize that I was, rather, a crazy mapache rescuer, which I guess is not too surprising as, in much of the rural world, raccoons are considered chicken-killing vermin. The shelter caretaker’s perplexedness was not assuaged by the fact that he could not actually see the mapache in question. Then it moved, and the expression on this man’s face could not have been more shocked had Sasquatch itself reared up and come running toward him. His eyes splayed wide, his jaw dropped and he leaned back so far, I thought he was going to land on his ass.
“Yo voy a traer un rifle,” he told me.
“No no no, yo no necesito un goddamned rifle, necesito un” … what the fucking fuck is the Spanish word for “cage?” Fortunately for me, I keep an English/Spanish dictionary in my glove compartment, just in case I find myself rescuing a raccoon and needing to convince an animal shelter caretaker that I don’t need a rifle, that I, in fact, need a cage.
“Una jaula … Yo necesito una jaula.” This did not clear up the caretaker’s confusion. What he did then, though, eventually saved the day. He had the cell phone number for the Animal Control Officer — the very same one that, seeming eons ago, the dispatcher had told me only dealt with dogs and cats. He told the Animal Control Officer nothing more than he was needed post haste at the shelter. When the ACO arrived, I related a truncated version of the story yet again and, truth be told, I did not give him much of a chance to chime in. I told him that, right then, I needed one of his cat cages and one of those long poles with the wire loop on the end. I told him I planned to get the raccoon to Dennis and Denise Miller, who the ACO knew, and I gave my word I would get the cage back to him. He visage bespoke bewilderment regarding why someone would want to save a raccoon, but, to his eternal credit, he did nothing except, as requested, pull out a cat cage and one of those long poles with a wire loop on the end. I went over to re-capture the mapache, who was by then beyond lethargic. I seriously doubted it would live. Just as I started to place the wire loop around its head, it came back to life with a vengeance. The little motherfucker actually started growling and it tried to attack my leg.
With relative ease, I got the unappreciative little bugger into the cat cage and, just as I did so, the phone rang. It was Dennis Miller letting me know that he had received Luan’s message and that he was 20 minutes away and would meet me at the shelter. The animal shelter caretaker re-locked the gate, wished me luck and drove off. The ACO likewise left, and, there I sat, awaiting Dennis’ arrival while, at my feet, the raccoon paced back and forth in the cage, awaiting its fate. I believe I even heard a bit of a purr, like it knew that, whatever was coming next, it was going to be OK. (Yes, raccoons purr.)
Dennis arrived, took both the cage and its contents and that was that. Adventure over.
The next day, Denise Miller posted a couple photos on the Gila Animal Rescue Facebook page. The accompanying text let everyone know that the mapache was in good health and that the process of preparing it for reintroduction into the wild would commence forthwith. “We’ll teach it to hunt and forage,” Dennis said.
And here I take yet another trip back to Colorado. Earlier I had mentioned how I could have placed a random call to any 668 number and would have had all the help I would have needed to easily save this little raccoon. What I did not then say was that, had the raccoon been captured in Colorado, it would almost assuredly have been transported to a Division of wildlife-licensed animal rehab facility. The one such facility I ever visited was located outside Fairplay and it was run by a wonderful and dedicated husband-and-wife team. Thing is, once an animal came into their care (they at the time had an orphaned fawn and an owl that had been hit by a car), that was it on the freedom front. There was no eventual release back into the wild; the animals would spend the rest of their lives in zoos. Which I guess is better than death, but not much.
That’s not how stories end for animals that end up in the care of Dennis and Denise Miller and their Gila Wildlife Rescue.
A few weeks later after my part in this raccoon story ended, Dennis and Denise were visiting the Little Toad Creek Inn & Tavern, a watering hole/restaurant/motel between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. They noticed that an extended family of raccoons was making nightly rounds that passed close by the Inn and on toward nearby Sapillo Creek. Dennis drove back to Silver City to retrieve the raccoon in hopes that it might be accepted into the family. He let it go and watched as both rescued mapache and a wild group of its own species rubbed noses, sniffed asses and sussed each other out. Then, without further ado, the raccoon I rescued from that overpass was apparently accepted, and Dennis and Denise watched as the group happily made its way into the wilderness.
When Dennis related that story of spontaneous reintroduction to me at the Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, I could not help but appreciate the fact that, even though there are plenty of times when New Mexico seems to be a clusterfuck incarnate, things, especially important things, most always have a way of working out for the very best that borders on magic.