“Do you want to fight me?”
The woman asking me this is thin and blonde and clutching a Starbucks cup—it looks like a Venti. She and her friends seem a little out of place at the public dog park on the lake. For one thing, they don’t have any dogs with them. But they obviously love animals because they are upset that I have put a trashcan over a raccoon.
The woman is wearing makeup, at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, at a dog park. She is wearing a white coat. To a dog park. She looks fabulous, quite frankly. At a dog park. I rarely look fabulous, and certainly never in the morning, at the dog park. Unless perhaps in the older sense of the word, fibula, a folk-tale, in that I resemble an animal dressed in human clothing.
The park is crowded, as it always is on a Sunday morning. When I arrive with our three dogs, the clearing on the hill is buzzing with dogs, owners, and flies. The reek of urine drifts across the parking lot. Before we have even begun our walk, I notice a commotion over on the edge of the clearing, by the park bench.
The commotion is a raccoon.
He is wandering around, on the ground, in broad daylight, encountering one excited dog after another, advancing, retreating, obviously disoriented. He seems unable or unwilling to climb any of the trees that are nearby. This worries me. Raccoons out and about in broad daylight are often sick, and rabies is a serious problem in our area of the country. So far everyone has managed to keep their dogs from attacking, but it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens. Fights between domestic animals and wildlife can be ugly.
I ask around in the parking lot: Has anyone called Animal Control? Yes, but they won’t come, someone tells me, because it’s not an emergency.
No, I think, but it will be an emergency pretty quickly once somebody gets bitten. I feel like I should do something. I often feel this way, and in this situation it actually makes sense. Years ago I received some volunteer training from an animal rescue group (that’s how I know that raccoons out during the daytime are usually sick). I recall that they told us to confine an obviously ill animal, and that seems like a good first step. So I put my dogs back in the car, find a Parks and Recreation Department trashcan, lift out the plastic bag of trash and dog poop, and cautiously approach the raccoon.
He doesn’t look classically rabid, at least not like rabid animals you read about. He’s not drooling or frothing or moving stiffly. He doesn’t run away when I approach. He’s slow and a little unsteady, but he doesn’t seem to be in pain. His eyes, however, are crusted with yellowish gunk. In dogs that’s a sign of distemper, which raccoons also get; if that’s what he has, he could infect an awful lot of dogs. I coax the raccoon toward the opening of the trashcan, making noises that I hope sound soothing to a raccoon. He looks blearily from me to the trashcan, wondering if this is a safe hole to crawl into, and why it smells like dog poop. We dance around a little bit, me trying to keep the trash can between us, him just wanting to go somewhere quiet and lie down. I am not sure how fast a raccoon can move when disturbed, and am terrified that he might leap around the can and latch onto my leg or arm. I’ve heard of rabid raccoons doing that. But this one is sedate, or really far gone. He makes no sudden movements, and I finally manage to upend the can over him. My legs are shaking. I find a large rock and set it on top of the trashcan. I take a deep breath. Then I borrow a cell phone from another concerned dog walker and call 911.
I explain to the operator that there’s an obviously ill raccoon in the park, mingling with dogs and people, and that someone will undoubtedly get injured soon if they don’t come collect it. I am persistent. I stress that there are children around. I remind the operator that this is a city park and the city has a responsibility to keep park users from getting rabies. I paint vivid, horrible word pictures of liability and bad press. She promises to send someone.
I hang up and wait. So far I feel I have done pretty well; I’ve temporarily protected the raccoon and the park visitors from harm, and persuaded the appropriate authorities to take action. Any minute now, Animal Control will show up and I can hand off the whole problem to someone with qualifications.
Then the Starbucks lady and her friends arrive on the scene. They have evidently noticed the raccoon earlier, observed its confused, diseased stumblings (“Aww! So cute!”) and gone for a leisurely walk around the park. Now they are back, and they are not pleased.
“What did you do to the raccooooon?” they wail when they see me standing vigil near the upended trashcan. When I explain that I have confined it until Animal Control arrives, they are outraged. “Let it out!” says the lady in the white coat. “You can’t keep it in there!” One of her friends backs her up, declaring, “Animal Control will kill it!” Absolutely true, if the creature is in fact rabid, and I don’t like that at all, but you have to weigh one sick raccoon against dozens of healthy people and dogs. I find it difficult to articulate this delicate ethical quandary in terms that resonate with the B-string cast of Sex and the City. While I am trying, the lady in the white coat walks over to the trashcan. I go after her.
“Don’t let it out!” I bellow. “It’s a sick animal! Someone’s going to get hurt!”
This is when she asks if I want to fight her. I have no idea what to say. What I am thinking is, Look lady, I just put a trashcan over a fucking rabid raccoon; I don’t know what I’m going to do next. So don’t push me. Because there are other trash cans in this park and one of them might have your name on it.
Part of me does actually want to fight her. I just risked a lot to confine that animal and I’m willing to physically stop someone from stupidly releasing it. Plus I know I could knock her out of the park. It might not be an easy fight; she looks like a biter. But I have a good twenty pounds on her and I’m in training.
Of course I don’t really want to fight her; she knows this, and she was smart to ask me right out, to my face. It broke the spell. What I should have said—calmly—was, “No, I don’t want to fight you. I’m sorry if I seem upset. I don’t want anything bad to happen to the raccoon, but I’m trying to follow the advice I was given when I volunteered for wildlife rescue. Please leave it alone until Animal Control gets here, and we can sort everything out safely.”
But I was so angry. I was furious, outraged that this idiotic woman thought she knew more about how to keep people and animals safe than I did. I was literally shaking with leftover adrenaline from my waltz with the raccoon, and not quite myself. At least, I hope that wasn’t me. That’s not the me I try to be.
I think what I actually said was, “I’m trying to keep people from getting hurt, you moron!” It occurred to me as I said it that it was probably time to brush up on my verbal de-escalation strategies.
Hilariously, throughout our encounter the lady in the white coat and I were surrounded by scores of dogs, happily and cooperatively doing whatever dogs do. Dogs of every color, size, and creed milled around us, sniffing, retrieving balls, peeing on anything stationary, and chasing each other, while we humans barked and bristled. With the raccoon out of sight, the dogs had forgotten about the whole thing, and naturally went back to acting civilized. I’m surprised one of them didn’t throw a pail of water over us.
Luckily, it was about this time that the park police officer showed up. He made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere near the trashcan. I felt vindicated at first, until I realized that he probably just preferred chatting with the fabulous lady in the white coat. She had a very nice smile. The Animal Control truck arrived shortly thereafter, and a no-nonsense woman with a very long pole emerged. She had obviously dealt with a lot of raccoons, and people too. She ignored everyone except the cop, to whom she grunted, and headed straight for the trashcan.
Animal Control is not a job that makes you welcome crowds, or empathy. This lady went about her job with ruthless efficiency. When she tipped the trashcan over, the raccoon blinked up at her. She observed it for a moment and then expertly looped her noose around its neck and dragged it a short way into the bushes. I couldn’t see what she was doing but I hoped it wasn’t a summary execution. After a moment, she emerged and waved the cop over. They consulted briefly and he came back to our little group.
“She says it’s just old, and has allergies,” he informed us brightly. “She’s going to take it up into the hills a little way and let it go.”
Allergies? I thought. I watched the Animal Control officer coax and drag the bewildered raccoon across the clearing and pop him into the back of her truck. All my life I’ve heard about the horrible diseases wild animals can spread and how dangerous such epidemics are, and here is an animal with obvious symptoms of disease, and you’re telling me it has allergies? Come on.
But, hey, for all I know, “Taking old raccoons up into the hills” is Animal Control’s version of “Sending Buster to live on a farm.” Rabies and distemper can only be definitely diagnosed through tissue samples, and here in Texas the authorities don’t think twice about whacking wildlife in the name of public safety. I certainly wouldn’t blame the Animal Control officer for lying about where she was taking the raccoon. I had just discovered the kind of reaction you can get from animal lovers if you disrupt the Disney movie in their heads.
And maybe the raccoon really did have allergies. If anyone would know just by looking, it would be an Animal Control officer, right? But whatever the raccoon’s fate—and I do hope he got the best possible outcome for him, whatever that was—it was better than leaving him to wander among well-meaning idiots.
I include myself among those idiots. Really, none of us acquitted ourselves well in the encounter, for all our good intentions. I acted like an officious jerk; the lady in the white coat and her friends were meddling nitwits. The cop was pleasant but passive, and the Animal Control officer, the real hero of the drama, was evidently incapable of human speech. Her departure broke up our pathetic little grouping: I finally went to walk my dogs, the ladies threw away their coffee cups and scattered to their SUVs, and the cop, bereft of female company, drove off to file his report. The raccoon, who left the scene dangling from the end of a ten-foot pole, made the most dignified exit.