by Randy Graham
Winter mornings start like this: I flip on the radio and tune it to the classical music station then put the tea kettle on the kitchen stove. Then, after some prep, my breakfast, my newspaper, and I settle on the couch in the four-season porch by the wood stove, facing the windows.
This is my favorite time of the day and it has come to me courtesy of retirement. When the news and the breakfast eventually are digesting, I continue my reverie for a bit while gazing out the porch windows. My house sits on a hilltop on nine acres near the St. Croix River, a pristine, protected river that forms a long section of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. My house, the other buildings, gardens, and chicken runs fill around an acre, and the rest is mature oak forest. Since I live in the middle of the woods, there’s always something to see through the windows.
Recently, I put down the newspaper and took note of an animal silhouetted against the snow moving through the woods at the foot of the hill about 150 yards from the house. It was not close, but because the animal was dark and the background snow was white, and because it was moving, it was not hard for me to keep my eye on it. At first, I thought it was a raccoon, but after I’d watched for a while, it was pretty obviously not shaped like or moving anything like a raccoon. I quickly realized that I was observing the very first fisher I’d ever seen in the wild.
Fishers are woodland creatures about the size of a large cat. As a matter of fact, the colloquial name for fishers is “fisher cats.” They don’t really look at all like cats, though. They’re really more like an overgrown weasel–and they are, in fact, in the weasel family. They mostly live in Canada and are fairly rare in the US. The National Park Service informs us that they occur in the northern parts of the Rockies and Appalachians–information that the fisher I was seeing through my window was apparently unfamiliar with.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources allows that fishers have sometimes been spotted in areas of Minnesota, including the river valleys in the southeastern part of the state. And that makes my woods fisher habitat. I share my acreage with any number of wild critters, but I had no idea I was sharing it with a creature so rare.
I was just a little elated that this somewhat unique animal was living nearby, but was also more than a little worried. The problem: Fishers are predators. Chickens are prey. I’ve read reports that describe fishers as “vicious predators” who raid coops and kill numerous chickens in a single attack. Should I share this information with the chickens? I was torn.
I know there are those flock owners who would immediately react to a fisher siting by reaching into the closet for their trusty Winchester or by heading out to grab one of the traps hanging in the barn. That’s not me.
I realize that I’ve chosen to live in a place that is occupied by wild animals. They lived here long before I arrived. Some of them eat plants and are likely to lust after my garden. Others eat animals and could have an unhealthy interest in my flock. While that’s the natural order of things, I’m annoyed when I discover a row of spinach mowed down overnight by deer. And while it’s never happened, I would be devastated to discover that any of my chickens had been slaughtered and consumed.
I do my absolute best to protect the one acre containing chickens and garden. The rest of the acreage I leave to the wild animals. To protect my gardens from plant munchers, I keep them close to the house and spray copious amounts of repellent. That strategy mostly works. And to protect the flock from chicken munchers, I don’t ever allow them to free range beyond the one-acre limit. When I’m home, they’re strolling around a half-acre chicken run, and when I’m gone, they’re in the hen pen with its wire roof, and perimeter of buried wire. I have never lost a chicken to a predator. I’m knocking fiercely on my wooden desk as I write this.
The chickens and I did have a close brush with predators a couple years ago, though; an occurrence that is now referred to by my flock, through tightly clenched beaks, as “the raccoon incident.”
In early June of that year, I began to notice a raccoon hanging around my backyard. The raccoon was quite interested in the bird feeder and quickly figured out how to shimmy up the pole, around the squirrel baffle and to the very top. Then it was a simple matter of sitting on top and reaching down for one little raccoon handful of birdseed after the other–directly out of the tray. I wasn’t particularly happy about the birdseed, but was even more concerned about the chickens.
While the chickens are well protected when they’re in the hen pens, it would be easy for any raccoon to scoot up a tree to get over the eight-foot-high chicken run fence. The chickens are only in the run during daytime hours when I’m home, but this raccoon was not a bit shy and seemed to have no problem with snuffling around the backyard in the daylight.
Raccoons are nocturnal and it has been suggested that seeing them during the day is one indicator of rabies. This raccoon did not act or appear rabid, though, and I was able to find this on a website called Raccoon in Attic: “While it is true that a rabid raccoon will exhibit a variety of unusual behaviors, activity during daytime is most definitely not a guaranteed indicator of rabies…It is not at all unusual for a raccoon to be active in the middle of the day…This is especially true of nursing female raccoons, who have a bunch of babies to take care of, and who have extra nutritional requirements, because they are nursing their young.”
And speaking of nursing mothers, I saw the babies a couple of days later—two cute little tykes. Now I had to worry about three raccoons getting the chickens.
Over the course of June and into July, I frequently saw the mom and her babies going after the backyard bird feeders. Then one day the babies came to the backyard without their mom. They showed up almost daily for the next few days for their birdseed, always without their mom. Since they weren’t old enough to be on their own, I began to wonder if they’d been orphaned.
And that presented me with a dilemma. If they were orphaned, it was possible that they wouldn’t survive unless I intervened. On the other hand, maybe the mom was nearby and just keeping her distance as part of the weaning process. Then there was this to consider: The woods around my house are filled with wild animals and the drama of life and death plays out every day. Was I ethically compelled to intervene in this situation just because I was aware of it? These thoughts continued to thread their way through my head, but I didn’t act. As it happened, I was in the last days of work before my retirement, so there was a whole loom’s worth of thought threads running through my head.
Then my last day of work arrived. A few of my colleagues were treating me to an evening baseball game that day, and my big dilemma was that I had no way to get the chickens shut into the coop at dusk. My wife was out of town, and the neighbor who often helps with the chickens wasn’t available. In the end, I decided I would hold my breath, cross my fingers, and close the coop door after dark when I got home. Thus, when I got home after eleven o’clock, I strolled through the dark woods to the coop and stuck my head through the open door. All was quiet. I flipped on a flashlight and did a quick check. Everybody appeared to be on the roost and sound asleep. So, I shut the door quietly and went to bed.
The next morning, when I hiked down the hill to the coop, I found all the chickens had crammed themselves against the door, and they bolted out in a panic the moment I opened it. I immediately found out why. There was a raccoon hunkered down and snarling in the far corner of the coop.
I obviously had locked him in the night before. A quick count confirmed that all the chickens were truly there. And the raccoon, I quickly determined, was one of the babies. No doubt this little guy was in the coop looking for eggs or chicken feed when he got locked in; he was much too young and small to tackle a chicken. Had this tyke made his bold move because he really was orphaned and starving? I’d been waffling about whether or not to insert myself into the baby raccoon situation, but now he had forced my hand by inserting himself into my chicken coop.
With the chickens all outside, I shut the coop door to keep him in and after some quick wrangling got him penned into a dog crate. I acted carefully. I didn’t want to cause him any injury, and I was also aware of the fact that while he was a baby, he was also a sharp-toothed, desperate, wild animal.
I had a raccoon. What next? I live in the country. Animal control is a nearby shelter that only deals with stray cats and dogs. There is no local police department—our police protection comes from the county sheriff. So that’s who I called. The dispatcher put me through directly to an officer who was nearby.
Let me just say that the folks at the county sheriff’s office are dedicated professionals. And I’m sure that if I was calling to report a burglar in my house, they would have been there in minutes and would have competently handled the situation. But I discovered when you call to report a raccoon in your coop, it’s a different story. At first, the officer told me she would help me take the crated raccoon outside to release him; then she talked herself out of even that degree of assistance since she “didn’t want to get bit by a coon.”
Fortunately, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota is about 45 minutes from my house, and that’s who I called next. The WRC is a remarkable institution that, for the last 40 years, has functioned as an animal hospital to heal sick and injured wild animals brought to them by concerned citizens. Bunny, fox, bat, woodpecker, or loon, WRC’s mission is to take each one in, heal it, and then return it to the wild.
The WRC staff-person I spoke with agreed that this little raccoon was probably orphaned. “Bring him in,” she said.
I hoisted the dog crate with its snarling baby and made the 45-minute drive to the rehab center. At the center, I turned the crate over to the folks there, and while they were coaxing the little guy out of the crate, I filled out the appropriate forms, left a $50 contribution then drove home. I knew that this little coop invader was in good hands and I was satisfied that I’d done the right thing and had accomplished a multi-step baby racoon rescue by 11 AM. I had not managed to accomplish breakfast or anything else, but nevertheless, it was a good start to the day.
Midafternoon, I spotted the second baby. He looked thin and bedraggled and was scavenging under the birdfeeder. When he saw me, he made a feeble attempt to hide in the day lilies. If I had been a coyote, he would have been a meal. As it was, I tossed a box over him and then got him in the dog crate, the dog crate into the truck, and made my second trip of the day to WRC. The center staff people reassured me that the two little coons would be checked by vets and released into the wild if they were okay.
By the time I returned home, it was time to put the flock to bed for the night. The day was over, and I hadn’t managed to accomplish anything on my list of tasks for that day. Yet it was a banner day. First, the chickens had shared their coop with a racoon for a night, and while they were completely freaked out, they all survived. They were fine! Second, I had learned the valuable lesson that under no circumstances could I ever leave the coop door open after dark. It could have been a lot worse. Third, fate had put two small wild creatures into my care, and I’d done my best. No small thing.
Let me pause here, near the end of my narrative to assure you that this story is entirely true and unadorned. This next part I could not make up: A few days after the baby raccoon incident I saw another raccoon in the backyard. It was ragged, emaciated, and was limping on three legs—with a stump where the fourth should have been. I only saw that raccoon the one time, and have no further information to share about it. But I can speculate that it was the mom. Maybe her leg got caught in a trap and she eventually gnawed her leg off, as animals in that predicament have been known to do. And maybe she was coming back looking for her babies.
When I dropped off the baby racoons at the center, the staff explained that their policy was to forbid people who drop off animals from inquiring about them. Past experience had shown them that answering well-meaning calls about drop-offs took a substantial amount of volunteer time that could be better spent helping the animals in their care. They did assure me though, that they would mail me a written report on the fate of the baby racoons.
In August, I received the report. The baby I dropped off first was found to be thin, dehydrated, and had infected wounds on his neck. He died shortly after I brought him there. His brother had a wounded paw that was badly infected and also infested with maggots. Because of his condition he was still there nearly a month later, but was doing well. He was nearing a point where he could be moved to an outdoor area and the vet who wrote the report said that as soon as he felt the little guy was ready, he would release him into the wild.
I entitled this story “Predators.” Perhaps the direction I took is unexpected; most articles about predators feature them as the villains. They are not villains. I will continue to protect my chickens from predators, but predators are not now, nor have they ever been, villains. Predators are simply predators. Once there were two baby raccoons. One died and one survived and maybe will live a full life and kill lots of other animals, because he’s a predator. The wild animals that live in the natural world around us are born, pass through the sum of their experiences and die practically unknown to us. But their invisibility to us and the part they play in the natural structure of things doesn’t make these wild ones any less valid or in any way diminish their existence.
And while I can’t begin to understand why the universe contains a formula that requires some animals to inflict pain and death on other animals for their own survival, I sustain myself with the faith that the universe continues to unfold as it should. Each one of us is a child of the universe.
We have a right to be here. And predators do too. They do too.
Photo credit: Randy Graham