One summer when I was 13, my brother-in-law, Randy, saw a baby raccoon sitting along the side of the road next to a mother who had been hit by a car. I was known as the animal lover of the family – my nickname was Elly May after the teenage girl on the Beverly Hillbillies who, like me, was happiest with a menagerie crawling around her neck – so Randy covered his hands in a thick pair of protective gloves, grabbed the hissing ball of fur, and threw her into the bed of his truck. He then drove straight to my mother’s house where he presented her to me as an exotic pet.
I was devastated that she’d lost her mother, but, selfishly, thrilled to have a new pet. I retrieved an old pet taxi from the shed and, using Randy’s gloves, transplanted the sopping wet, angry creature into her new home. She seemed to hate me. She stayed huddled at the back of the pet carrier, glaring at me with yellow eyes and growling in an attempt to convince me she could bite my face off through these bars if she really wanted to. But I could smell her fear – there’s a scent that animals give off when they’re in danger or agitated, and this little baby raccoon was throwing a stink my way that undermined her nonverbal threats of ripping out my eyeballs with her teeth.
Meanwhile, I loved her already and wanted her to love me just as much. I stole a jar of Mom’s peanut butter from the kitchen and began rubbing handfuls of it across the bars, hoping to entice her closer. My hands became stickier with each dip and smear. After ten minutes, my fingers were nearly webbed together, but it was worth it because the hateful fur-ball could no longer resist the scent of food. She stopped growling, instead chortling like a pigeon as she crept forward on tiny, padded paws. Soon, she’d licked the bars clean and was looking up at me, almost purring. My mother warned that she probably had rabies and swore she’d leave me to die in the basement if I contracted it too. I unlocked the bars anyway and allowed her to crawl into my lap where I continued to feed her peanut butter until she fell asleep in a furry semicircle.
For the rest of the summer, she was my first priority. I called her Baby because she seemed certain I was her mother, following me everywhere and crying noisily if I disappeared behind a door for even a moment during the day. At night, she slept outside on the porch in a bed I’d created from old wood scraps and cloth because Mom remained certain my new pet was an unpredictable, possibly rabid nuisance. Each morning that summer, I woke up and fed her breakfast, a mixture of peanut butter and cheesy-poofs. She would chatter happily, climbing up my jeans over my white US Open 2001 t-shirt which by the end of the summer was stained with orange and brown paw prints. She preferred to sit on my shoulder like a parrot, holding the snack between her paws and taking bites. This was the cutest behavior I’d ever seen, but I worried that she needed training in food scavenging for when she got older; my solution was to hide cheesy-poofs inside tree branches so she would have to climb to reach them. By the end of the summer, I had turned the area outside my house into a raccoon jungle gym – I stashed snacks in garbage bins, buried them in the yard, and dangled them from chains she easily scaled.
Over the next year and a half, she lived with me, but as she grew bigger, she often wandered farther and farther away at night, becoming less my pet during the day and more like a visitor that showed up without calling, instead delighting me with surprise arrivals. “Sherry, your ‘coon’s out here!” Mom sometimes called to me in the evenings from the front porch. I’d come running out to see how much bigger she’d gotten, laughing as Mom cowered against the screen door for fear Baby would mistake her for me and climb up her back. I’d pick her up like old times, petting her and always giving her lots of treats. As the year went on, her visits became less and less frequent until one day after being gone for nearly four months, she showed up with four little raccoons of her own. I tried to give them cheesy-poofs too, but she was fiercely protective, growling and refusing to let me get too close.
I didn’t see her much after that, but I like to think she still lives somewhere in the woods behind my parents’ house, raising generations of raccoons who, to hear Mom tell it, will soon come and dismantle the house piece by piece, starting with the kitchen – Baby knows that’s where the peanut butter lives.