By Claire Walla
When howling winds from Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the East End last month, hundreds of tree branches snapped and entire tree trunks were split in two — locally, perhaps none more memorable than a tree in Pine Neck. The trunk practically burst open in the midst of the storm, splaying bits of bark in various directions only to reveal a hollow gap in the trunk’s interior, where trio of baby raccoons had made their nest.
An image of one of the four-week-old cubs made the front page of The Express the week following the storm, its furry body dwarfed by thick slabs of wood and its characteristic black mask slanting downward, almost giving the creature a worried expression as it stared out at the photographer.
Without their home and with the loss of their mother — who couldn’t be found after the tree collapsed — the creatures were destined for their demise.
Baby animals too young to survive on their own are often put in the care of local wildlife rehabilitators who volunteer their time nurturing them until they can safely be put back in the wild. It’s standard protocol. But not for raccoons.
Along with skunks and bats, wildlife rehabilitators are prohibited from caring for raccoons by the Suffolk County branch of the New York State Health Department. Instead, skunks, bats and raccoons that are wounded or are not entirely self-sufficient must be destroyed because they are deemed rabies-vector animals. (According to Ginnie Frati, Executive Director of the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, rabies is most common in these three animals, though it has not been reported in Suffolk County in the last few years.)
This would have been the case for these three cubs, had it not been for one fortunate coincidence.
As Irene gained momentum on the morning of August 28 and most East End residents were hunkered down in the comfort of their own homes, John (not his real name) was out driving around and taking pictures of the storm. That’s when he came up roughly 15 people gathered around a tree on Elm Street in Pine Neck. And when someone told him the tree was home to three baby raccoons, he exclaimed, “That was like hitting the lottery!”
A member of the Wildlife Rescue Center’s rescue team, he scooped them up in his grey, plastic rescue tub — which he always keeps in his car — and immediately took them home.
Even though it’s illegal for Suffolk County residents to do so (which is why his real name is being withheld for this article), John said he couldn’t help it.
“I grew up with raccoons, I had them as pets,” he explained. “So when I saw them in the tree, I immediately went into action.”
The cubs are now living in John’s backyard somewhere in the greater Sag Harbor area. He says they follow him wherever he goes and to demonstrate, he places all three cubs in the grass. They immediately swirl around his feet — and when he begins to walk the trio trails behind his every step, prompting an impromptu game of follow-the-leader.
The raccoons are kept inside a lidded wooden crate originally built for storing firewood and most recently used to store scuba diving equipment — not because John is worried animals might run away, but to protect them from predators.
“A local male raccoon would kill these babies if it had the chance,” he said. “Raccoons are very territorial.”
So with a modest tree branch inside the box for décor, the raccoons’ makeshift habitat is cleaned regularly and the creatures are fed a diet of liquid nutrition like Similac, baby food and the gravy from canned dog food. (The meatier pieces are put outside in the yard “for the local raccoons.”) While John said it’s taken the babies a while to transition into solid foods, he’s finally at a point where he can begin serving hot-dog pieces and slices of watermelon.
“What I really should be doing is taking them to the cove and looking for crabs and clams,” he said. With an appetite for local sea life, the hope is that the critters might be more inclined to avoid dumpster diving in the future. Although, John also pointed out, those efforts might be fruitless: “They just eat everything.”
According to John, there are several people like him on the East End who harbor raccoons illegally.
“We do everything we can to get the babies back with their mother,” said Ginnie Frati of the Wildlife Rescue Center. “But someone is really supposed to bring them to us for euthanasia.”
Unfortunately, Frati continued, some East End residents will call trappers to get rid of raccoons, and often the animals are drowned. While other parts of New York State can issue rabies-vector-species licenses for wildlife rehabilitators, such licenses have been banned in Suffolk County since 2004.
“I’ve been fighting this for years,” she continued, noting that there is a large population of raccoons on the East End. “In baby season we probably get about one to two calls a day. It’s heartbreaking for us to take the calls.”
As far as John is concerned, the rules in Suffolk County are a bit extreme. While raccoons have been known to carry rabies, he feels the animals have been unfairly singled out. Any number of animals can carry a whole host of diseases, he added.
“My neighbor believes rescuing animals is a waste of time, that it interferes with the course of nature,” he continued. “And I understand that. But, I also believe that if it wasn’t for us, we wouldn’t have to be out here rescuing them.”
John said most of the rescues he’s gone on have been influenced by humans in one way or another, whether it’s a deer that’s been hit by a car or a squirrel that’s ingested anti-freeze.
He plans to let the three raccoons go in November, if not sooner, when they’re big enough to survive on their own. He plans to take them to a place that’s relatively rural.
“I’ll build a box for them and set it up with some food,” he explained. “Then I’ll get in my car and go… and try to just keep driving.”