by Chuck Rigby
Originally published in the July 10, 2002, Illinois Valley News.
A number of years ago I received a live animal trap as a present, probably birthday.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to see a number of animals close-up. Cats are the most common visitors in my trap, but I try to discourage them and then let them go back to their home. Gray squirrels, opossums, and skunks are all carefully transported a few miles away and released in a wooded area away from homes and highways. This summer a raccoon showed up in the trap for the first time. It was probably the irresistible old turkey tail which was his undoing. I now have the opportunity to start a new category on my score sheet, and then wait for the next exciting adventure. I hope the raccoon enjoys his new home on Sucker Creek above the Grayback Campground.
Raccoons, or coons, are found in almost every part of the continental United States except the dry deserts of Utah and Nevada and the high Rockies. Procyon lotor is the scientific name and it reflects one of their eating habits. “Pro” is Greek for before or beginning, cyno” is Greek for dog, and “lotor” is Latin for washer. Therefore the raccoon is considered a pre-dog which washes its food before eating. Sometimes grain or cat food will disappear in their hands during this process. There are a few theories about why raccoons go through this ritual. Even in captivity, with no water available, they will still rub their food with their hands before eating. Some people think it is done because they lack salivary glands and washing helps in swallowing. Others think it is done to remove dirt and sand. Another idea is that they usually capture food in streams by feeling with their hands and washing duplicates the process when not at a stream.
Besides dog and cat food, raccoons eat most anything including fruit, insects, crawfish, frogs and compost. The last reason is why he ended up in my trap. In the wild they sleep in hollow trees and logs, rock crevices and abandoned burrows. In town they are found in sewers, attics, trailer crawl spaces, dormant chimneys and culverts. They are mostly nocturnal and remain active during the winter unless it is extremely cold. In real cold periods they will remain in their dens but do not go into actual hibernation, which involves slowing down of body processes and lowering of body temperature. An animal in hibernation is very close to being dead.
The Lewis and Clark journals refer to them rarely because they were well-known to the explorers and to most people east of the Mississippi River. The first one recorded was June 13, 1804, near the Chariton River mouth on the Missouri River. They had started their trip May 14 so this was near the beginning as they struggled upstream against the Missouri current. There have been many references in the media lately about the year 2003 being the 200th anniversary of the trip. The expedition really began Jan. 18, 1803, when President Jefferson secretly asked Congress for money to send a party up the Missouri River. The Louisiana Purchase did not go into effect until April 30, 1803, so France still had control over the region
From July 15 to Aug. 30, 1803 Lewis was in Pittsburgh, Penn. on the Ohio River arranging transportation of supplies, awaiting Clark’s response to the invitation to join, and recruiting capable men to be part of the crew. The winter of 1803-04 was spent at a camp near St. Louis. The expedition did not arrive in the Oregon country until Oct. 1805 and a raccoon was reported Oct. 21, 1805, near the John Day River.