Saving Poncho Villa

I called him Poncho Villa. He was an animal baby who stole my heart.

Our time together began as I was walking past the eaves to our Florida home and I heard an unusual scratching and distinctly animal sound. It didn’t sound like a rat or a squirrel, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem happy where it was. And I of course didn’t want it there either. I followed the sound around a corner, and saw that whatever it was, was trying to enlarge a small break in the eaves so it could get out.

It didn’t take me long to get a ladder and rip out a section of the eaves, and when I did, I saw the face of a baby raccoon. But as soon as I saw it, it disappeared around the corner again.

I would have to be patient.

Thinking that perhaps it could climb down the ladder, I decided to leave the ladder in place through the night. Hours later as I was pulling a car out of the driveway, my headlights shown on a nondescript little furry thing in the yard, several feet away from the ladder. I put the car in park, and leaving the lights shining on whatever it was, walked over to investigate. It was a baby raccoon, lying fairly motionless even as I approached. I assumed it was the one I had briefly spied earlier.  When I saw how small it was I knew he must have fallen, hitting the ladder on the way down, for he was much too small to climb down the ladder.

His fall must have just happened because he had not moved far, and none of the local dogs and cats had found him yet. He was completely defenseless, and did not resist when I picked him up by the scruff of his neck, as I assumed his mother must have.

Fortunately I had a large metal cage we’d once used to house guinea pigs, and it made a secure place for him to spend the night while I researched what to do with him. As shown by one of the first photos I took of him, stretched out on a pool skimmer net, he was small.

I learned two things right away — he was far from being weaned, and he could barely see. One eye was covered in pus, and the other was barely open. I think that contributed to the fact that he did not scamper away from the base of the ladder; he was essentially blind.

I thought I was in luck because a veterinarian lived next door, and I quickly told him what I’d found. Surprisingly, he seemed very disinterested. I later learned he felt the baby had no chance of survival. But I was determined to give it a go, in spite of the odds.

The Internet taught me that he could be sustained by artificial puppy milk (Esbilac) given to him from a dropper. Sure enough, he avidly drank as I squeezed it out of the dropper. At that point I committed myself to raising him till he was weaned.

Like any baby, he fed frequently, and seemed to be thriving on the ersatz mother’s milk. I started taking him outside as often as I could just to give him a break from the cage, but he never wanted to stray more than a foot away from me. He had fully accepted me as his caregiver and protector.

He’d only been home a couple of days when it occurred to me to get a can of pressurized saline from a drugstore and wash his eyes, which had been undoubtedly damaged and infected by fiber glass in the attic. A gentle pulse or two of saline was all it took to wash away the pus from one eye and cleanse the matted goopiness from the other eye. He now seemed to be able to see.

But when I took him back outside, he looked up and froze. Instinctively he seemed to realize that he was exposed to predatory birds  — he seemed the most afraid of any time I’d had him, which made him stick even closer to me when outside. So we spent more time inside than out.

It helped that my wife was out of state so she didn’t seem to mind the thought of a baby raccoon housed in the bathroom of our now grown children. But she explained he would have to be gone by the time she got back. That didn’t leave me much time to get him weaned.

We developed a routine; I’d feed him at midnight and morning, and go home at lunch to feed him again. He’d get more feedings in the afternoon and evening. Whenever I got home I’d find him hanging upside down on the top of the cage, making baby raccoon sounds, eager to be fed again. He was gaining strength.  I’m sure he’d nurse much more frequently from his mother, but somehow my work schedule and his feeding schedule just had to work out. And it did.

I started trying him on grapes, with only very limited success. Other solids didn’t really interest him, but he loved simulated puppy milk. He was a messy drinker, just like a human baby, and much of what came out of the dropper went down his chin and neck. So sooner or later it was bath time, in the bathroom sink.  Although he was not happy about it, he did not resist. After all, his body was the size of the palm of my hand, so he accepted the frustration of being washed with the same confusion and passivity as a newborn human baby.

Now that he could see, he became interested in new toys, although he was not up to playing with them like a puppy or kitten. I suppose that was too much to expect. He also was reluctant to leave his cage, and only with some trepidation did he sniff around when I pulled him out of it. To him the cage was security, where he slept and was fed.

It wasn’t long before I saw the mother raccoon, sticking her head up through a hole in the roof. A 100-foot tall pine tree had dropped limbs on a portion of the roof, breaking the plywood, and allowing water to enter enough to begin softening the wood. The pregnant mother coon had been looking for a roof weakness to exploit, and finding it, she literally ripped a hole in the plywood enough for her to enter and raise her offspring.

Apparently Poncho Villa, being mostly blind from infection, had strayed far from the nest in the attic and became trapped in the eaves. The access to the eaves was too small for his mother to squeeze in to return him to the nest. Had I not found him, he would have perished.

It was summer, and when my wife returned I had to move Poncho outside into the heat. As much as I hated it, at least his cage was in a shaded, covered porch, which had to be much cooler than the attic where he had begun life.

During one of my visits during lunch on a hot day, he taught me a lesson in regulating body heat. I found him sleeping soundly on his back with his almost bald stomach exposed to the air, and with all four limbs outstretched stiffly and all fingers and toes splayed widely. It looked like he was using his stomach and non-furred paws to act as radiators, transferring heat out of his body. Clever little baby coon.

Eventually he was very close to being weaned, and it was time to find him a more accommodating home. Fortunately, our local zoo had received a rescued raccoon baby the year before, and was excited to see Poncho. As shown in the final photo, Poncho was as uncertain about leaving his human mother, me, as I was at leaving him with the zoo.

I had grown fond of the way he would cling to my chest and stomach with his baby claws as I carried him around the house, and eventually the zoo. I would soon miss the chittering sounds he made, evident in the video at the bottom of this posting. I felt like a parent to him, and he responded as I suspect a raccoon kit (baby raccoon) would to its mother. Except for the nursing of course.

But at least the zoo gave him a physical checkup, vaccinated him, and groomed him for a role in fund raising for the zoo, a noble cause I believed. In fact, he quickly became a radio station celebrity. He never had much to say, of course, but the local radio personalities carried on about him as the zoo used him for promotion.

After a brief stint as a celebrity, he was taken to the farm of his zoo caretaker and was slowly transitioned for release into the wild, a wilderness that, unlike most raccoons, he’d never known.

Ironically, right after I saw the mother raccoon, and made a futile attempt to locate the nest, the raccoons left. The playfulness of his siblings led to their eventual undoing. I woke one night hearing chittering and scampering sounds in the walls of the house where I believed the nest to be, far out of my reach. As I stood in the room trying to localize exactly where the sound was coming from, one of the kits broke a wire in the wall that triggered  the whole house alarm. The horn was situated in the attic near where the nest was, and as loud as it was to me in the room below, it must have been deafening to the raccoons.  After that night, I never saw or heard from the family of coons again. I’m sure the mother moved them to a quieter neighborhood.

The video below is a fair representation of the sounds Poncho Villa made when I would come to feed him.  The raccoon kit in the video appears to be a little older than Poncho was when he graduated from puppy formula to, of all things, animal crackers!


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