…At least, I believe it was Faith in the kennel I carried into the woods. She had changed so much. They all had. A mere two pounds each when I handed them back to Susan months ago, they were five times that size now. Sorting out my three raccoon cubs from the tribe of eight we were to release that day on the border of state forest lands was no easy task, yet by the time the six of us conga-lined into the woods with our kennels (and crabby passengers) at our sides, I believed I had identified Faith, Earnest, and Frank from the other masked bandits.
In my kennel was a beautiful silver and black beauty who traveled quietly at my side, wringing her delicate hands in concern. “Nothing to be concerned about here, Faith,” I told her. “I’m taking you to paradise.”
And after a quarter mile of bushwhacking through the woods, we were, indeed, in raccoon heaven. The woods were deep and lush, with a clear stream snaking through the gullies and around fallen logs. Chanterelle mushrooms sprouted like tan peonies along the forest floor, and dragonflies sang their songs to us as we slowly placed our eight kennels along a low ridge overlooking the gurgling creek.
Susan was efficient and quick, having released hundreds of raccoon cubs on private and state lands all around our region. I was in a trance, scarcely believing it was all true: This was the day I had worked toward with my three cubs. Freedom. A wild life. Pulling grocery bags out of a backpack, Susan unloaded containers of grapes, zucchini, corn, eggs, bananas, and too many other goodies to count. This would be food for the raccoons that evening and perhaps into the next day as they settled into their new home.
“Open the kennels,” she said. It was all happening too fast for me to take in the full wonder of it all. I clicked the latch on Faith’s cage and opened the door for her. Around me, I heard the sounds of other kennels being opened, of volunteers chatting and giggling, and I turned to see eight masked faces peeking out with no more barriers between them and the lives they were born to live.
Three silver raccoons darted out immediately and followed each other down the hill to the creek. I believe one of them was Earnest. Such a brave boy he had become! They were headed to the water when a sapling suddenly diverted their attention, and they couldn’t help but investigate. In a flash, they were racing to the top. When they got there, the view must have been worth the climb, because they sat there together, clinging to the branches and swiveling their heads left and right.
Slowly, the sapling began bending to the weight of 30 pounds of raccoon on its crown. “It’s going to break,” said Susan, just as it flopped over, crashing the three adventurers to the ground. I thought they would head on to the stream, but no. They dusted themselves and each other off, and scrambled into a nearby, thicker tree. I smiled. They learned fast.
Meanwhile, Faith was stepping tentatively out onto the mossy mound where I’d placed her kennel. She stopped and turn toward me, rubbing her hands together for a few moments. “It’s just fine, baby,” I whispered to her. “You remember the forest, don’t you? We took walks there and you played in the creek. Now you can play forever. No more kennels for you, sweet one.” She watched my face, and sniffed in my words with her busy nose. More gentle steps. And more.
Frank, I believed, was the large raccoon charging around the trunk of the big beech tree where Susan had placed all the treats. He had no interest in the food. The tree was his treat—as trees had always been whenever we’d gone walking in the forest. He raced around the trunk like he was running the track at the Kentucky Derby. And I think he was winning.
The trio of climbers near the stream had found their own particular paradise. When I looked for them in the upper branches, I saw them sprawled out and napping.
We stayed for only a short while longer, talking, laughing, drinking in the sweet taste of success. Then, Susan packed up the gear, we picked up our empty kennels and said goodbye: “Stay away from the coyotes!” Susan said. “And from roads!” someone else advised. “Live long and prosper, “ I said to accompanying laughter.
But as I turned away—elated that none of them so much as looked our way as we left—I whispered my prayer to them. “May your lives be long and sweet and good. May the crawdads and frogs be plentiful. May you be invisible to those who would do you harm. May you have many healthy children. Let it be so.”