Noe Valley Voice November 2004

Florence's Family Album
Raccoons I Have Known and Loved

By Florence Holub

Florence Holub's essay on the pitter-patter of furry feet originally appeared in the September 1989 edition of the Voice.

There are wild animals in the woods of Idaho where I come from and in the East Bay hills where my man Leo grew up, but neither of us ever expected to encounter any in metropolitan San Francisco. When we moved to our brown-shingled house on 21st Street in 1958, we immediately cleared a space in our large rear yard and planted tomatoes. We tended them with care, but as each fruit ripened to juicy orange, it disappeared during the night. For all our efforts, we obtained not one tomato, and we could not imagine who did.

We were aware, however, that something was moving around in our garden at night, because each morning the tiny plants that crept over the walk had been neatly folded back, as if moved by someone to uncover something. And Leo felt that he was being watched through the basement window as he worked there at night.

Our next-door neighbor Helen was also perplexed. To provide her plants with calcium, she regularly watered them with water from a gallon jar on her back porch, in which she had soaked eggshells. Each morning, she noted that the jar lid had been unscrewed and that her cats were very nervous. We rationalized that only a creature with hands could turn a bottle lid--paws or claws wouldn't do it.

Our family was too busy getting the house in order, however, to give the puzzle further thought. But one evening as we painted the upstairs bathroom, my son informed me that something was peeking in the window. Then he added in alarm, "There it goes again!"

In disbelief, I put down the paint roller and looked out around the window casing--directly into the masked faces of a pair of raccoons. We excitedly awakened the other family members, who jumped out of bed and climbed onto the roof to see for themselves. At our approach, the raccoons, who until then had been silent and inquisitive, began to hiss angrily--so we let them be.

Not long after this, another neighbor related to us what he took to be quite a strange occurrence. He had clipped the roots of the thick mattress vine that was strangling his pine tree, and as he pulled down the tangled mass, he was showered with a cascade of eggshells. Helen's mystery was thus solved, for raccoons, we realized, are quite able to unscrew lids--their dexterous fingers actually resemble those of humans. As if to prove this, one night as we slept, our nocturnal friends left their perfect little handprints all over the plastic couch cover on our deck.

Raccoons generally make their nests in hollow trees or thick bushes, any place that is safe during the day, when they sleep. We had no idea that they had been living under our deck until our dog went on a barking rampage directed at a large unused section of clay pipe stored there. To quiet him, we investigated and found nestled inside the cylinder a grayish furry family of animals with pointed faces, full striped tails, and intelligent eyes that appraised us warily.

Time passed, and then one rainy spring day we discovered where another of their nests had been. A downpour had developed from the ceiling of the laundry corner of our kitchen. When the rain stopped, we climbed onto the roof to look for leaks. There we found a cozy abandoned nest, along with a few walnut shells and a worn-through area in the roofing--the source of our kitchen waterfall. The nest was situated beneath a leafy shelter where our neighbor's tree hung over the house.

One evening a few months later, the raccoons formally introduced themselves by politely appearing at our son Jan's second-story bedroom window. They stared so endearingly, in fact, that he began putting food for them in a feeder outside the window.

This gift of peanuts, dog biscuits, grapes, and eggs--when coupled with the neighborhood's plentiful supply of goldfish (in outdoor ponds), insects, fruits and nuts, as well as pet food put out for domesticated animals--gave them a well-balanced diet. (Apparently, they also enjoyed escargot, because another neighbor found neat little piles of empty snail shells on the walk after nocturnal visits from our "friends.")

Every night, the raccoons came to the window feeder. At first, they all looked alike, but quickly they became recognizable as individuals.

There was Grumpy, who ate first and growled a lot. Next came Mother, with her young one called Squeaky (because that's what she did until she matured). And sometimes a second group would climb the side of our house for their rooftop dinner and then pass over the roof peak to continue their nightly rounds.

With the passing years and quiescent lifestyle of the raccoons, we have often lapsed into complete unawareness of their presence--until sometime during the night when we hear that familiar soft shuffling over our heads. Then we are reminded--and reassured--that the delightful little creatures are with us still.