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Raccoon Discipline

Once I had to discipline a coon.

I was a licensed New York State backcountry guide. A group of us had hiked into the Catskill wilderness and had made a camp near the headwaters of the Beaverkill River. We had a central cooking fire. At night we suspended our group food between two trees to keep it out of reach of animal scavengers. Because there was some hunting and trapping in the area, I didn’t anticipate trouble from the camp-raiding four-leggeds that are so common in parks where they’re protected and therefore used to raiding campsites. Yet I felt that this was an important procedure for new campers to learn so I recommended everyone do the same with their personal food supplies as well.

Most of them put their food in a nylon stuff bag and hung them in trees near their tents which were pitched here and there in the surrounding woods. I did not check to see how each person had hung his or her bag because I didn’t really expect any animal visitors. Well, sometimes you get what you don’t expect. It’s true in the woods and it’s true in life. That first night, not long after everyone had settled down, I was startled out of my first few minutes of dozing by the unmistakable clatter of pots, pans, bowls and sierra cups. I bolted upright, and clicked on my flashlight in the direction of the noise. My flashlight beam was met by the bright shining eyes and black mask of a handsome young raccoon. It was busily exploring the kitchen area, upsetting, overturning, and walking around in all our carefully cleaned pots, stacked dishes and utensils.

I stormed out of the tent and shooed the coon out of the camp, chasing it into the bushes until it disappeared into the darkness. I checked the kitchen area to be sure we really had cleaned up all the food. We had; the cooking area was neat and clean except for the now scattered pots and pans.

The coon did not come back that night, but the next night it was back, as hopeful as ever, rummaging through all the dishes again. I charged out of the tent like I had the night before. And the coon scrambled off into the bushes like it had the night before; but half an hour later it was back. We had been hiking and exploring most of the day and we had stayed up late singing and telling tales around the campfire. It had been a busy day and I was not looking forward to working third shift as the camp coon chaser so I gave up, pulled the covers over my head and tried to ignore the racket.

Soon the coon realized that as good as it smelled, there was indeed no food here. It wandered off into the night and all was quiet–till later on, that is when a new noise–a strident ripping sound–tore me from my peaceful slumber. It was coming from a new direction. So once again I crawled out of my bag to investigate. I followed the sound to one of the nearby tent sites. There was the coon up in the tree tearing into somebody’s improperly hung food bag while the owner snored away. At my approach the coon beat a hasty retreat scampering away with a granola bar in its mouth looking like a large flat cigar.

I untied the tattered bag and took it back to my tent for safekeeping and went back to sleep, only to be awakened shortly thereafter by what was now becoming a familiar wilderness sound– the sound of coon teeth ripping through the nylon of another person’s food bag. To make a long story, medium, I should tell you that I had to rescue three more bags that night. I put them all in my bag which was hung behind my tent.

By the time I returned from my last rescue mission and got the food hung, the first rosy fingers of dawn were brightening the eastern edge of the forest. I was trying once more to get back to sleep when I heard the sound of coon claws on tree bark right behind my tent. I looked out the rear window and there was that ring-tailed rascal climbing up after yet another food bag. This was my food bag. It was hung by a rope and dangled several feet down from a high limb away from the trunk of the tree. I watched that coon attempt to reach down from above, then climb halfway down the trunk and try unsuccessfully to reach out from the trunk to grab the bag and finally stood on its hind legs under the bag trying to reach up, unable to reach my bag. 

About that time I realized that I had had about enough coon for one night. It was daylight and that coon would not be able to slip off into the darkness like it had the night before. I was going to give that coon a run for its money (or its granola bars)! This coon needed discipline. I quickly slipped on my sneakers and leapt out of the tent with a heartfelt furious roar.

The coon and I started a mad dash through the woods, over rocks and through underbrush. I was keeping up quite well when the coon shinnied up a tall hemlock tree. It climbed out on a branch about twenty feet above my head and gazed back down at me with nothing but complacent smugness in its beady little black eyes. I shook my fist up at that coon. “This ain’t no old hobbled-up coon dog you’re messing with this time you ring-tailed fuzzball. I’m going to learn you a few things,” I hollered. I cut a hickory switch and started up that tree.

That coon’s eyeballs about popped out of his head when it realized that I was coming up that tree after it. Slowly I climbed, growling ominously, the hickory switch between my teeth. That coon turned tail and moved higher up the tree. I kept right on climbing, growling and showing my teeth at the coon. (Of course it’s hard not to show your teeth when you’re using them to carry a stick.) I wanted to make an impression on that coon, for the good of our food supplies as well as for its own future. I wanted that coon to know humans as we really are.

To that raccoon we had seemed like harmless, noisy, bumbling creatures whose sole purpose on Earth was to bring delicious food into the woods to feed bright, young, opportunistic raccoons. I wanted to teach that coon the truth about humans: that we really are the most dangerous creatures on the face of the Earth, that we really are insatiable and that we destroy a large part of the natural world every day, and that includes coons. And like my forefathers I believed that in certain instances truth and discipline can be most effectively conveyed with the sting of a hickory switch.

Soon the coon was near the top of the tree nervously climbing back and forth in the upper branches. I just kept climbing and growling. The coon knew it was trapped–and I was closing in fast. So it climbed out on the longest branch that it could find, but because we were almost to the top of the tree that limb was only about five feet long. By the time I got there the coon was desperately hanging on to the flexible outer branches at the very end of the limb. Looking out from that tree top into the fear-filled eyes of that pitiful coon as it cowered there frantically clutching the green boughs with its delicately fingered front feet was enough to melt my heart.

All I wanted to do was comfort the little rascal, and stroke its lush, lovely fur. But I knew that the best thing I could do for this beautiful, wild, free-spirited animal was to teach it to associate humans with fear, pain and danger. So I drew forth my hickory cane and switched the dickens out of that critter. The coon turned and took a flying leap. It grabbed a few branches on the way down to slow its descent, then for a 25 foot freefall it fell spread-eagle with its feet and tail stretched out so that it looked like a giant flying squirrel or a miniature bear rug. A few seconds later it hit the ground running, and as far as I know that coon is still running…running wild and running free.

It never came back to our camp that week. I’ve been to that campsite several times since and have never had any more trouble with raccoons. Occasionally I think of that treetop session disciplining that coon. That coon might still be traveling along the creek that runs by that campsite and if it gets a whiff of human scent I hope that it understands the dangerous unpredictability of the human species. Some are harmless campers, but others are hunters and trappers, and yet other rare humans might be like that deranged, snarling beast with the stinging hickory switch.

I hope that memory has kept it out of trouble, running wild and running free.


Hi folks, I hope you enjoyed this story and I hope you also are running wild and  free. Your comments are welcome. That story was excerpted from my book, Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural WorldThe book has more raccoon-ology as well as lots of other interesting natural history, stories, and lore. You might want to check it out. It’s on sale this month

13 thoughts on “Raccoon Discipline

  1. I always enjoy you nature wisdom and folklore. Thank you for sharing this tale.

  2. Well told. I giggled a bit and sighed a bit. Many decades ago, in a bygone time, we raised them from kits. I know exactly what you mean by wanting to comfort it. And make sure it gains a healthy fear of humans.
    Hope you’re keeping well,
    Karin and family

  3. Hi Doug! I loved this story. We miss you and Sunday night music. Hoping to see you soon!

  4. Thank you for your story! It added some cheer to my day!

  5. Quite enjoyable, felt I was in the woods for a few minutes. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Hi Doug , I enjoyed your Raccoon Discipline story ! It reminds me of a ” Raccoon Tale ” of my own ! While rgowing up in College Hill – a Suburb of Cincinnati my good friend rescued a pair of orphaned Raccoon pups . ” Pete and Gladys ” were in a tree that was cut down for firewood and low and behold , unknown by the tree crew there was a raccoon family living in a hollowed out part of the tree . Momma coon took off , leaving he babys behind . As they were not yet weaned , my friend Mike Callahan took on the task of feeding . First by eyedropper, then by doll baby bottle ! They grew and grew ! A year or so later ,Pete was a BiG BOY between 35 & 40 pounds ! Well his sister had. Atured as well , and came in heet . Mike , not wanting to promote animal incest , nor raise any inbreed coons did his best to keep them seperated . We would ice skate in the winter on the small lake on the Crossley Estate , not far from our homes . On this mid winter day , Mice called me up and invited me to go skateing – sounded like fun , and Mike arrived shortly , and brought Pete for an ” outing ” ! Prior to leaving my house , Mike put Pete on my sholders so he could ride there . Now keep in mind this was an active , love sick , unfullfilled boy .This was in the late 1950’s and the hair style was ” flat tops “( also known as a ” Butch ” and to make our hair stand up and spike properly , we would use a preperation known as ” Butch Wax ” a pink , thick , gooey , fragrent concoction . Pete wasn’t impressed apparently Mike’s ” Brillcream ” was more to his liking , he ran his ” hands ” all thru
    my hair , and commensed to bite my head 4 or 5 times befor Mike could snatch him off ! Now I had blood running down out of my nair line , and Mike advised me to go inside and ” clean up ” ! Knowing my Mom , there would be no ice Skating for me if I went in all bloody , so , off we went to the pond ! Mike owned Hokey Skates , and I preffered figure skates with the serratted fronts , and much to our amazement , we soon learned that Pete could out run and out corner us on the ice ! The day wore on , and the wind picked up , and the chill factor soon ” started to get to us , so the decision was made to head on home . But Pete was having too much fun ! We were COLD ! Mike was chasing Pete all over , and I was ” entertained ” ! Pete finally decided to scamper up a tree , and Mike was right behind him ( still wearing his skates ! Up went Pete higher and higher with Mike ” hot on his tail ! Way up at the top Pete ran out of tree , and Mike started to rapidly shake the tree top . Pete must have thought that it was the ” end of the world ” and lost bladder control ! Now just in case you’ve never had the pleasure of smelling coon pee , it is WAY SMELLY ! And with a facefull and in his eyes filled , Mike lets out a yell , grabs his eyes with both hands , looses his balance , and down he comes ! Pete -1 Mike -0 Pete’s still in the tree , chattering , I’m rolling around on the ground in fits of laughter , and Mike is furious ! Mike scrambels back up the tree , climbs to the top , and trys a new stratagy . Swinging the tree , side to side ! I’m thinking ” this isn’t going to end well” , and just when I think the tree top will break off – – –
    ZING Pete lets go and comes flying down , head over heels into the snow , happy to be back on the ground ! We hot foot it home , put Pete in our attached , heated garage and warm up with Hot Choclate . Now my Big Brother was quite the out doorsman. He tyed his own fishing flys ,and even made his own arrows and fletched tham with feathers .
    When we went to collect Pete so he and Mike could go home , we looked in the garage and found a happy Raccoon , in the middle of the floor , that looked for all thw world like a CHRISTMASS TREE .Pete was still in the process of decorating himself with an entire cabinet full of tinsel , colored thread and , feathers ! I remarked ” my brother’s going to kill me ” and just then my brother Wayne put his chin on my sholder , and remarked ” now why would I do that ? I just pointed into the garage , It was Mike’s turn to join my Big Brother in fits of laughter ! And that’s the tale of the Christmas Raccoon !

    1. These are amazing stories! Thanks for sharing, Doug & Bill!

  7. While trying to remove a groundhog from my garden with a Have-A-Heart cage. Two young raccoons got caught inside. The larger one was hopping mad and hissed and complained as I let them go, but the smaller one was very meek and mild and almost friendly. It really surprised me how different their personalities were and the fact that they were both in there together. They ran off into the woods when I let them out, but still every now and then one of their family helps them selves to my bird feeders at night.

  8. As always your raccoon story was delightful.I miss Sunday night music also. Maybe this spring we can start again.

  9. This is a wonderful story Doug.Thank you so much for your kind appreciation of those wild creatures. You have helped me to feel less fearful of those critters who want to eat my chickens. I’ll have to find a good hickory switch!

  10. Great stories- thanks for sharing them.
    FYI: I retired from the Science Center on
    October 4th of last year completing 41 years to the day I started there in 1980.

    I’m busy with projects around the house,walking our dog & exploring trails an natural areas with my wife Becky. Remember if you ever get to Hickory- the “latch string hangs open” for you to spend the night!
    Bruce

  11. It’s always good to hear from your, tell everyone I say hello!

  12. Of Racoons, Cat Ladies, and Grumpy Old Men

    I live in Spuyten Duyvil, on the Hudson River, in the West Bronx. The Shorefront Park here is full of raccoons. Not to mention possums. And skunks. We even see a coyote occasionally.
    There are a couple of old ladies who live in the neighborhood who love to leave food and water out for the stray cats. The problem is that they leave it in the small, crescent-shaped enclave that the City built that overlooks the Shoreline Park and the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which connects the Harlem River to the Hudson. It is called the “Half Moon Overlook,” in honor of Henry Hudson’s famous sailing ship.
    Every morning, the old ladies dutifully leave their pie tins of food and water for the stray cats by the two wooden benches in the Half Moon Overlook. And every evening, I or my neighbor Hugh dumps them. The food and water. Not the old ladies.

    It is not that we are a party poopers or a couple of grumpy old men. It is just that we realize that the food is not being eaten by the stray cats, as the ladies had intended, but by the raccoons and the other critters that inhabit the Shorefront Park. In a sense, ours is a mission of mercy. As Hugh is fond of saying, “As far as the racoons are concerned, the catnip is the appetizer. The cat is the main course.”

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