by Whit Gibbons

March 25, 2007

People are constantly asking for advice about keeping wild animals as pets. In a single week recently I was asked about geckoes, pythons, salamanders, and, no kidding, an African lion. I am not opposed to someone keeping an animal, wild or domestic, for a pet as long as it is properly cared for, is not an endangered species, and doesn't decide to eat my dog. Someone recently asked about keeping a raccoon as pet.

I have written before about my experiences with our pet raccoon, which began when my son and I found an abandoned baby raccoon in a hollow tree. We fed it enriched milk from a doll's bottle for about a week. Teaching our big dog, Nero, that the baby raccoon was not a meal was clearly important. Fortunately, Nero apparently saw the visitor as more entertaining than edible. Our two cats simply avoided the little intruder.

He soon began eating cereal and baby food, and tottering around the house. At this point we decided he should stay in the backyard, as I had no idea how to housebreak a raccoon. As it turned out, we never had a problem. We also reasoned that if he wanted to be a pet, he could come in or out like the dog and cats. Or he could leave and be a regular raccoon, if he chose. He preferred the dog and cat routine, coming in to eat out of a bowl or a hand, sleeping on a rug beside the couch, and making himself quite at home.

One day we watched this two-pound baby raccoon stalk along the couch toward Nero, who was asleep on the floor. Before I could stop the seeming insanity, he pounced from above, landing right on Nero's back and then running behind the couch. The dog looked up and made a half-hearted snap at the disappearing ringed tail. A moment later the raccoon climbed the back of the couch and repeated the stalking, pouncing, and running. Nero again snapped at the air. We watched in amazement as this sham attack and lame defense were carried out more than 30 times! After that he began to play other fighting games with Nero, just like a puppy.

He had quickly learned to come when a food bowl was clanged with a spoon. One day, he joined us for breakfast, not just at the table but on it, clear evidence that raccoons are as smart as dogs and as agile as cats. We immediately put him outside. Three minutes later he was on the table again, trying to snitch a piece of toast. No outside doors were open, and we wondered how he had gotten inside. We put him out again and watched this wily creature climb the oak tree out back, walk out on a limb, and jump on the roof. He then came in through an unlatched screen window and scurried downstairs. We almost beat him back to the table.

He also learned to open the sliding door with his nimble little fingers. None of the other pets can do that. He later learned to turn the doorknob and open the back door to let himself in. I designed a mechanism to keep the refrigerator door latched, as he had learned to open that, too.

During the summer he gained several pounds and spent most nights outdoors, scrambling down from the oak tree when we went outside in the morning. Then one day, we went to the pantry cabinet and beheld our fatter-than-ever raccoon sitting on the top shelf with both hands in a box of cereal. That was also the day we found him a home in the country with a friend who had always wanted a pet raccoon.

I am not advocating that people start making pets of raccoons or other wild animals. For one thing, some are protected by wildlife laws and some carry rabies. But I am convinced that with a few generations of selective breeding and with the level of attention we give our cats and dogs, raccoons could become a favorite pet of us all. I'm not so confident about African lions.

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