Every summer, The Humane Society of the United States' Northern Rockies regional office is asked by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks or the Beartooth Nature Center to accept "human-imprinted" or "orphaned" raccoon cubs with little chance for survival in the wild.
A young animal can "imprint" on a human if he or she spends enough of their early, formative time with that person. The animal will behave as though that person is the animal's parent.
Though these animals face difficult circumstances, we do our best to equip them with the skills they'd need to beat the odds.
For young raccoons, we use a six- to eight-week rehabilitation "tough love" protocol to confine the animals and teach them to again be nocturnal, to eat native foods and to fear humans and dogs.
It is the most difficult and challenging part of wildlife rehabilitation and fostering-getting the precious animals in your care to fear and hopefully even hiss at you when you approach!
But for 2008, fate and timing helped make this tough job easier and shorter.
In late May, we accepted two fat raccoon cubs who were left at ZooMontana by a man who said his dog killed the mother. When we accepted the raccoons, we immediately noticed they wanted to be picked up.
I called the man for details and he gave us some new, important information. He said his dog did kill the mother, and he had watched the cubs starving in his backyard for days. His kids had cared for the coon cubs for the last 10 days and had fed them everything from marshmallows to Captain Crunch!
These little raccoons were very confused and much imprinted by human attention. For a week I tried to pen them in a "den box" with no light during the day. I sprayed compressed air at them to get them to not rush in toward me when I approached.
This was going to be a tough case.
But then fate came in the form of a phone call from a community a short distance away. The community had a litter of wild coon cubs they said they were "gonna shoot" if I did not come remove them. I responded and found two hissy, spitty little raccoons who looked to be a few weeks older than those at home.
A light went on in my head, and I thought: mentor 'coons! I wondered: Could these little guys be penned with "my" raccoons? Would they be able to teach my raccoons how to be wild raccoons?
It only took 24 hours to answer those questions, and the answers were yes and yes! The wild raccoons accepted the foster cubs. They made them nocturnal that first night and I never had to close the day den box door again.
They taught them how to eat raw veggies, native fruits-like choke cherries we pick for this purpose-and even crawfish.
In nine days, these two mentor coons had turned our fat foster coons into the real deal-raccoons who didn't like me, my dog or any human attention.
The now "fearsome foursome" were released in a quiet valley of the Yellowstone River, where they ran away with a speed and disdain for me that few others of the some 400 orphaned raccoons I have rehabbed over the years had.
It was a true lesson in humility and reverse compassion that greatly improved the chances for survival for these cubs.
Dave Pauli is director of The HSUS Northern Rockies Regional Office.