The weather forecast for Waterloo Region on the August Civic Holiday Monday was for persistent cloud cover and the day-long-threat of rain. This prompted my husband, Jon, to seek out a location for our regular weekend day trip where there was less chance of showers. I packed a small bag with fruit and water, we loaded our dog, Nemo, into the car, and off we went in search of sunnier skies.
An hour and a half later we found ourselves standing on a quiet country sideroad in the Grey Highlands deciding which way to go on the Bruce Trail. To the right were farmers’ fields and a natural bush area. To the left was a path that led directly into a stand of trees, grasses, and shrubs.
“Left,” said Jon, “I want to go left.” So, left we went.
There is a good chance that if I had been alone I would not have gone much more than 20 metres along that left trail. There were places where the ground was soaked and puddles had formed in the deep, mucky footprints made by previous hikers.
“It gets better,” Jon called back to me as I squished along behind him. But as I rounded the next curve in the path, my mud-encrusted shoes did a slippy-slide on the damp, sticky trail and I began to contemplate turning around. Jon, however, was undeterred so we soldiered on. That turned out to be a good thing.
After 15 minutes we had walked about 500 metres into the bush when I heard a rustling sound in the ground cover beside the trail. I turned to see if I could spot whatever it was that was (undoubtedly) spooked by our presence and was (obviously) trying to flee to the safety of its den or nest. To my surprise, the rustling foliage seemed to be moving towards us, and within moments a pair of wide eyes wrapped in a black mask was staring at me from around a bit of greenery.
“It’s a racoon,” I called to Jon. “It’s coming this way,” I added with growing concern. Raccoons, I thought, were nocturnal animals. Seeing one this alert at 3:00 in the afternoon running towards us put me immediately on guard and made me fearful of being exposed to rabies.
There was no stopping it from reaching us though because the slippery trail made it impossible to escape with any speed or coordination. Seconds later it was at my feet trying to wrap its paws around my legs. I put my backpack between us and tried to push it away, but instead it latched onto the bag and started opening the zippers.
“Help me get him off,” I said to Jon, and somehow we managed to get him to the ground.
“Go on, get out of here,” said Jon stomping his feet in an attempt to scare it away. Instead, the racoon began to crawl up his pant leg.
By this time we could see that this was clearly a young racoon and that its intent was to find food. I opened my bag and pulled out one of the peaches I had brought.
“Here,” I said showing it to the racoon. He took it from my hand and devoured it immediately. While he (or she – we had no way of knowing which) was distracted, we tried unsuccessfully to walk away, but he instantly abandoned what was left of his fruit and followed us along the trail.
I pulled another peach from my bag and he attacked it with the same gusto as he had the first. Again, we tried to advantage ourselves of his distraction, to no avail.
“Let’s go back to the car,” suggested Jon. “He won’t follow us all the way.” But he did, and in short order we found ourselves standing at the car with a young, tame racoon who unquestionably wanted to be with us, and no idea how to manage the situation.
Jon and I are animal lovers and we knew that it was not natural for a youngster like this to a) be out on its own in the middle of the day, and b) be this persistently friendly, playful and needing of human contact. We didn’t want to leave him there because we knew he would be endangered in the wild, particularly when he seemed to have been domesticated. We also had no way to transport him to a safe location, nor did we know where that location might be.
In our search for a solution, we called the emergency number for the humane society in Owen Sound and were advised to call the Ministry of Natural Resources. The holiday, of course, prevented us from reaching anyone in that office.
Eventually, I walked the racoon into the tall grass while Jon backed the car out onto the road. Reluctantly, we drove away, those wide eyes in the black mask staring at us from the side of the road. It was heartbreaking.
Later that evening when we got home, Jon and I did separate online searches to see if we could find a wildlife sanctuary where we could have taken the vulnerable racoon. Both searches turned up Procyon Wildlife, a rehabilitation and education centre located in Beeton, Ontario an hour and a half from our home in Waterloo.
We emailed Procyon that night, explaining the situation we had found ourselves in, stating “we would go back immediately to attempt to find [the raccoon] and bring it to a safe place if we knew there was an option.”
Procyon’s Volunteer Coordinator, Linda Moores, responded first thing Tuesday morning. If you go back to find him, take a box to carry him in, she advised, saying also that if he was found, she would let the centre know to expect us. They were full up, said Moores, but considering the circumstances, they would make an exception for this young racoon. That was all the incentive I needed.
“I’m going back for him,” I told Jon when he got out of the shower. “I have to try.”
“Be safe and let me know how it goes,” he said before leaving for work.
I packed the car with things I thought I might need for my rescue mission: food and water for bait, stiff gloves, an extra leash, and a pet carrier. I loaded up the rescue kit, put the dog in the car and by 9:30, Nemo and I were on our way back to Graham’s Hill in Grey County.
The drive was plagued by doubts that I would locate the young racoon a second time. I berated myself for being on a fool’s mission and made a mental list of the different impediments to success: the racoon could have moved on; he followed another hiker; he would be asleep; he had become prey; he was hit by a car….
When Nemo and I pulled into the Bruce Trail parking area it was almost 11:30. I was relieved to see there was no dead racoon on the road.
My strategy, if you could call it that, was simple. I planned to recreate the aural conditions of the walk from the previous day. I figured that if the racoon had been kept as a pet, he would be attracted to familiar sounds like a dog’s leash and a human voice. Nemo and I set off down the trail which was just as mucky as it had been the day before. As we walked, Nemo’s tags jingled and I shook the spare leash. I whistled and called, “Coo-coo,” as a simple vocal enticement.
For the next two hours Nemo and I walked back and forth along the trail, lingering at the point of our first encounter with the racoon and expanding our search in both directions beyond it. At 1:24 Jon texted: “How you making out?”
“No luck,” I responded. “I am walking back to the spot where we found him yesterday for the third time. Then it might be time to go. Nemo is getting tired.” “Shucks,” he said.
A short time later we saw ahead of us on the trail, a woman walking her two dogs. We stopped and called out to each other. She offered to hold her dogs to the side as we walked past.
“Thanks, I was about to turn around anyway,” I explained. “I am looking for a baby racoon that we saw here yesterday; we think it was abandoned.” It was at that exact moment that I turned around to see the little racoon trotting down the path towards us. “And here he is now!” I called out with delight. 
“You’re going to be safe now,” I told young Coo-coo. “I’m going to take you someplace where you will be safe.”
So, for the second day in a row, the racoon followed us back to the road. In one hand I held a bag of corn muffins. After his first taste, Coo-coo enthusiastically chased my ankles down along the trail. In my other hand, I carried an exhausted Nemo.
“I found him!” I dictated excitedly into the text app on my phone.
“Woo hoo!” came Jon’s response. “Good job!”
When we reached the car, I laid the dog in the back while I put the pet carrier on the ground. “Here Coo-coo,” I said showing the racoon what remained of his muffin. His eyes brightened and he hopped into the carrier where I had tossed the treat. I followed it up with a snack sized bag of blueberries, then I zipped him in. It was as easy as that.
The carrier went in the hatchback, the poodle lay down in the front seat and off we went to Procyon. The sound of slurping and chewing coming from the back of the car was followed by five minutes of chatter and mild protest. Then, silence for the remainder of the ride.
Just after 3:00, we reached Procyon Wildlife Centre and were greeted by Marlena who facilitated Coo-coo’s intake.
People who adopt wild animals are often seduced by how adorable the babies are, explained Debra Spilar, the centre’s custodian and president of the board. (It’s easy to see why. It was difficult to resist Coo-coo’s charm.) Problems occur as the babies mature. Once they reach their mating age of 10 months, they can tear a home apart.
“They are really intelligent. Of all the animals that we house at the centre, raccoons are the smartest. We have to double lock their enclosures,” said Spilar as we watched Coo-coo fiddle with the latch on his temporary crate.
Spilar confirmed that Coo-coo is a juvenile. She believes he is from a litter that was probably born in April of 2017. He will spend his first two weeks at the centre in quarantine before being moved to a pen with other racoons his own age. They will have minimal human contact so that they can learn from one another how to be raccoons. The goal is to introduce them back to the wild before winter sets in, but if Coo-coo isn’t ready by then, he will winter at the centre.
Spilar said she believes Coo-coo would never have survived had he been left on his own in the woods. Being so tame would have imperiled him in countless ways. It was a relief to have a place to take him where he will be safe while he learns to be wild again.
To learn more about the Procyon Wildlife Centre and the work they do, visit procyonwildlife.com.
 Side note: Thinking back on the moment, I am struck by Nemo’s calm during both these encounters. Two days in a row, he came face to face with a strange critter and had uttered not a sound: Not a growl nor a bark. At home he is known to go a bit insane about animals in his yard or dogs walking on his street. He was once sprayed full in the face by a skunk with whom he’d taken exception. I can’t explain why he was unfazed by this young racoon. Maybe he now knows what being lost and scared looks like.