Web Site: Wild Heart Ranch Wildlife Rescue
Eleven years and more than ten thousand rescued wild animals later, this is the story that began my journey... One lone injured raccoon. This story and more available in my book; "Touched by the Wild"
Boris; My Teacher
He was just a little guy, not a baby, but not yet fully grown. A raccoon that was severely injured from a battle, most likely a dog attack. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I had to do something for him. The day before, I had passed my Oklahoma State inspection to rehabilitate wildlife. The Game Warden had come to my home and decided I was competent enough to be licensed to care for the orphaned and injured animals that were found daily by area residents. I had ten acres of land, lots of trees and years of experience assisting unwanted dogs, cats and livestock. Wildlife was fairly new to me, but I was anxious to learn about the animals and their care. I had recently retired from the corporate world, and was ready for a life away from the stress and pressure, but I still required a purpose and goals to achieve. I decided this would keep me busy and fulfill my passion to assist animals. There was no where for them to go and I wanted to help the little babies any way I could. I thought I was ready. Nothing I had imagined prepared me for this little raccoon. I was nervous, but he was terrified.
I called him ‘Boris’. Im not sure why, but that is the name he received his first night into my makeshift wildlife clinic which consisted of the room in the front of my home. It was basically a large fully enclosed porch where I did my laundry and worked at my computer. I had set up a table, a large animal carrier, shelves of towels, blankets, a handful of medical supplies and a clipboard ready to log the animals I cared for. How little I knew the clipboard would someday hold thousands and thousands of lines of information. There would be dates and species, conditions and circumstances; history of success and release amid a few records of failure and death. The clipboard would show the technical histories of life and death, but the stories behind the generic descriptions live only in my mind. The time has come to share them, and let others see through my eyes, and comprehend what I have learned from some very special friends.
Boris was a mess. I put on heavy leather gloves and examined him carefully. He was weak, but still aggressive. His abdomen was slashed from below his right front leg to his left hip. The gore that was spilling out sent a momentary panic through me. It was too late to contact my vet and I would have to do something to help him until morning. This was my problem. It is what I wanted and this is who I had decided to be. I am the one that helps the wild animals. It was time to find out if I had made a terrible mistake.
Instincts, origin unknown, set me about cleaning his wound and flushing the parts of him that had become contaminated with dirt and germs. It was a challenge as everything needed to be cleaned and then carefully put back inside his torn body. Boris allowed much of it, but a towel was used like a protective tortilla to roll his upper body, keeping me safe from teeth and claws while I cleaned and cared for my little charge. I set up his crate as sanitarily as possible and gave him water which he did not drink. I spent the entire night in vigil over him, watching every breath, terrified of losing him.
Boris watched me intently from the recess of his crate. I was fascinated by this animal. Though I had successfully raised two orphaned raccoon kits, which is what prompted me to get licensed and open a rescue facility, they had been babies and were much less challenging. Their successful plight and the absence of anyone in the area to help them encouraged me to look into wildlife rehabilitation as a legally supported ‘hobby’ of which at the time, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I expected it to be a series of cute and cuddly orphans of which I would raise and care for until they were mature enough for release back to the wild where they would live happily ever after just like in the Disney movies that I loved so well as a child. I was not prepared for the mystery and awe I would feel in the presence of a truly wild animal. Boris was my first, and his injury was life threatening. I was in way over my head and I knew it. Since childhood, I’ve always had a natural skill of forever landing on my feet when faced with uncertainty, and tonight I would depend on it to protect both myself and the frightened, mangled raccoon.
A few times during the night I would succumb to sleepy eyes and wander back into my bed, only to bolt awake at the realization that their was a wild animal in my house! It was a bizarre feeling actually. I would immediately hurry to check on him, and consistently, with the alert of some deep seeded instinct, Boris knew where I was before he could even see me. His eyes would be locked on mine the second I peered around the entrance to his crate. He was aware of my presence instantly and knew every move I made. He was a wounded soldier, but he never failed to be prepared for battle. I finally decided my check ups were robbing him of much needed rest, so I covered the entire crate with a blanket, and went back to bed, this time staying put until sunrise.
The day dawned with anxious energy for me. I was out of bed and charged with a mission to get professional care for my new patient. I burst into the ‘rehab room’ as I called it, to see a very different situation than I left last night. The blanket that was covering the crate was now somehow fused with the crate. Every possible place it could be pulled inside, it was. Ripped, tattered, and stretched in a hundred places, the blanket stood as an obvious statement, “Boris didn’t get much rest last night!”
I began what would become my daily routine with Boris, only at this point, it had become dangerous. I had no fear of the vicious little raccoon, weighing about ten pounds, but I was extremely cautious and respectful of what he could do if I gave him the opportunity. He was beautiful and mysterious to me. His bright eyes framed by the contrast of his black mask, his hands completely dexterous, able to pick up the tiniest piece of food or dismember a perfectly innocent blanket. Boris was backing away from me in his crate as I reached with the welding gloves to retrieve him for a wound cleaning. He had defecated in his crate, and during his hissy fit with the blanket, had made quite the mess of himself, exposing his innards to all kinds of bacteria. I knew instinctively I had to get him clean…somehow. It was the first time I felt completely alone in my venture, and questioned whether I had any business at all taking on such responsibility. Boris would have to come out, the crate cleaned; his wound cleaned and everything put back together without injury to me or escape for him. Wow. I had really stepped into it this time, but I had no choice but to just do it.
I did. I got Boris into a towel which I quickly rolled around him. Once he was completely covered, he seemed to freeze. That was when I learned a valuable trick with wildlife. What they cannot see, is not as large of a threat to them. They either succumb to being caught, or just calm down with a feeling or temporary safety having their options seemingly limited. Either way, Boris stopped fighting and I was then able to clean out his fitly crate, and perform a semi-surgical removal of the blanket that had made him so angry.
Once that was done, far too many paper towels and too much disinfectant later, I was ready to tackle the ‘angry burrito’. I had brought in a shallow tub of water. He would have to be bathed before I could clean his wounds. I wasn’t sure how this would go, but I had the tub filled with warm water and antiseptic, and was ready to get wet. THAT was an understatement.
I decided to bathe the whole package. I was afraid he would escape the minute the towel was off of him. Towel, raccoon, gloves and all went into the soothing water. I rubbed his filthy fur free of muck as I kept the towel protectively over his head. The water instantly turned black. He was filthy and more than a bit annoyed. Half way into the wrestling match, I had a moment of panic as I realized all the dirty water was now flowing inside his body. This wasn’t going to work. I removed him immediately and lay the growling, clawing mess on a dry towel. I had to get him clean some other way.
I decided to flush him out with a squeeze bottle filled with warm water and Betadine, which is an antiseptic used for open wounds. I emptied the bottle twice into his abdomen. The warm fluid soothed him. He must have been hurting. Though I had switched one leather welding glove for latex to better clean him, I kept one well protected hand holding the business end of the raccoon safely in place under the soggy towel. Suddenly, he stopped fighting me and relaxed. This confused me, as I wasn’t sure if I had suffocated him or if he was sincerely allowing me to help him. After several minutes working furiously on his abdomen and its contents, I removed the towel to find out that Boris was indeed fine, just accepting this bizarre ritual. He immediately puffed up, growled and scrambled to his feet. Into his now sanitary crate he leapt. THAT was just too easy. I was completely bewildered but proud of the cooperation that we had just exchanged. I was filled with new enthusiasm and energy as I cleaned up my mess, myself and awaited the time to contact my vet to get Boris the care he so desperately needed.
I called Doctor Lesleigh Cash, a vet I hadn’t had the opportunity to use before, but who was the only doctor in town willing to work on wildlife. To my relief we agreed up front she would not charge for wildlife as long as I would provide the long term care for any wild animals she also took in. This was going to be a team effort to assist wildlife in our community. At this time I had no idea how much I would learn from this talented and compassionate woman. My main concern was affordable veterinary care for my charges. She gave me that from the beginning. I paid for medication and ex-ray film. She donated her time and knowledge. It was the perfect partnership, one that would save the lives of hundreds of animals.
With Dr. Cash expecting me, I loaded the miserable raccoon in my car, covering his crate this time with a bed sheet, hoping he would spare its life. The wait in the clinic seemed endless as other clients waiting to see the doctor, consistently asked to peek at the terrified raccoon. Boris held his ground, having no options for escape. By the time we were in the privacy of the exam room, I was filled with dread. I didn’t know if my little raccoon’s life would be spared, and the fear was written all over my face.
Doctor Cash expertly examined my ‘towel burrito raccoon’. Her expression was one of certain doom. She told me he would not survive, his wound too large and impossible to keep clean. She was leaning toward euthanasia, but a look into my tearful eyes changed her decision.
“Let’s try it Annette.” They were words that stopped my heart. “Im going to sew him up and let’s see what happens. You are going to have to keep him clean and he will be on strong antibiotics. Try not to get your hopes too high.” She said with a knowing look of compassion. To her, Boris was a lost cause. To me, he had a chance. That’s all I needed for inspiration. I would be allowed to try. I had to try. I just needed guidance.
She anesthetized Boris and expertly inserted a whip stitch of strong suture along the eight inch gash in his body. It was certainly something out of a horror film, but with his now immaculately shaved and cleaned belly, its contents expertly flushed and replaced, he looked a million times more hopeful to me. We were well on our way to recovery!
Leaving the clinic, I was on cloud number nine! A groggy Boris tucked securely into his crate in my car; we were headed back to my wildlife rehabilitation facility (home) to continue my duty to save this animal. I felt such the professional now, having performed my duties perfectly. Take in the battered, angry animal, clean and repair as much as possible, visit the wildlife veterinarian, bring home repaired animal with medical instructions and drugs, provide recommended care per instruction. This was great! I had found my calling!
Doctor Cash had also recommended a variety of wound cleaning supplies to me for Boris; an antiseptic salve, a spray that assists in wound healing and a variety of vet wrap and gauze pads for cleaning and covering the wound. I stopped by the animal feed store to purchase my list of supplies. I was amazed at what they had available. Though I wasn’t sure what all I would someday need, I found myself filling my cart with a variety of items; syringes, penicillin that the doctor had used, various bandages and medical scissors to change them. I hurried to check out and pay for my arsenal and get Boris back home to settle in before the anesthetic wore off and he became aggravated.
Once home, Boris settled in to a comatose nap, I began arranging my supplies on the nearby shelves. I was getting set up, far sooner than I expected, this charge being my first, but unbeknownst to me, far more severe in comparison to what I would deal with in the future. Today I can honestly say that the only thing that saved Boris from euthanasia was my own ignorance and the determination that came from it. I didn’t know enough to know that Boris should not have survived his wound, and for that, I refused to give up too soon.
I began a medical history on Boris that would later read like a daily log of horror. I was completely astute in noting every change, every observation and everything I did for him. His bath times, wound cleanings, meals, medications were all logged. I left nothing out. Even the consistency of his bowel movements was permanently recorded. I wanted to be good at everything I did. I didn’t see a point otherwise. Boris snoozed peacefully all afternoon and into the late evening. I went to bed without the need to constantly check on him. I would clean him the next morning, and probably have a fight on my hands as I expected him to be stronger and feeling better now that his wound was closed.
The next morning brought new enthusiasm. Grateful not to have to face cleaning his exposed innards, and having him closed up against the certain messy crate. The bed sheet was in its typical state, part of Boris’ crate, pulled in through every possible crevice, ripped with rage and the need to escape. Upon further inspection, I saw that my morning would not be as easy as I had planned. Boris WAS feeling better and he had learned a new trick during the night…suture removal. He was not a slacker at it either. The perfectly sewn strand was lying intact in the floor of his crate. Nothing was torn, nothing was bleeding, just wide open and once again, filthy.
I was horrified, but kept calm. I wrapped Boris in a towel and drug him out to clean him up once again. This time he lay on his back and seemed to know what to expect from me, though if the towel fell from his face, a quick bite into my leather glove reminded me to be diligent and careful. I was afraid to take him back to Doctor Cash. I knew surely that she would put him down. Boris was weak, but he was eating and drinking and I knew the antibiotics would help the problem of keeping him clean. I had my own reservations now, but I also had an obligation to this animal. My selfishness of keeping him alive was not fair if he couldn’t or shouldn’t be saved. I decided to make another appointment and see what happened.
The second visit went exactly like the first. Doc (as she became known by me) cleaned and sewed him up again, all along feeling the compassion and the struggle that I was experiencing. She opted to help him only because I would have been crushed otherwise. She said we would give it one more chance. A chance was a chance, even if it was the final one. I would make the best of it and guard the newly placed sutures like his life depended on them, and this time, it did.
The next wound cleaning resulted in a mummified raccoon. I used an entire roll of vet wrap. If he decided to remove his sutures, he would have hours of challenge getting to them and hopefully, with constant checking, I would be able to stop him. On this visit Doc introduced me to my new best friend. Pancake syrup. She taught me how to crush up the antibiotic pills that Boris fought me to take, and put the powder into a syringe and draw up pancake syrup to entice the animal to take it. It worked perfectly, and I learned that I could get Boris to do anything in the world for a taste of pancake syrup.
It wasn’t long before everything we did revolved around pancake syrup. I could open his crate and lure him out onto the towel with a syringe of syrup. I still had to roll him into a towel to change and clean his ever shredded bandages, but soon I had a solution to that as well; miniature marshmallows. If I handed him one, that was it. He held it between his paws and intently focused on eating the sweet treat. I learned a rhythm of handing Boris another marshmallow and working on his bandages. If he ran out of marshmallow, he instantly became aggressive, so we just didn’t run out of marshmallows as long as I was still working on him.
I didn’t sleep much those next few days. Constant checks into his crate to protect his sutures robbed me of nearly all of my sleep. Boris never left them alone unless it was to eat or stare me down. It was exhausting and by night number three, even my relentless, hourly alarm clock couldn’t wake me. That morning dawned with utter panic. The dreaded moment had arrived. Boris was in his crate, surrounded by shredded bandages, his now raggedy blanket, and once again, one telltale string of suture lay discarded among the pile.
I was sick. Worse than that, I was disgusted with myself. How could I allow this to happen when it was his utter survival that depended on that suture! Boris was covered in his typical fecal mess, only worse as all the sugar and antibiotics gave him a lose stool. I began his bath, and set up for an abdominal flush. I had no plans to take him back for another closing. This was not going to work. Boris and I were on our own. We would have to find another way.
I opened his crate, ready to get started. Boris assumed his usual position, bowed up and ready to escape. I was fed up with the struggle, both for myself and for him. Every day was dread for him. Everything I did was traumatic. I wasn’t certain if I was helping him or torturing him. If I took him back to Doctor Cash, I would have him put down. I wasn’t going to put him through any more repairs. I sat in my chair in front of the open crate, and began an insane conversation with a bewildered raccoon.
I told him that I was sorry. I was sorry for his wound, I was sorry that he didn’t understand what I was trying to do for him and I was especially sorry that I was ready to give up if he was. I told him that the only way I could help him anymore was if he was able to deal with it, that I could no longer fight with him to save him. We were up against terrible odds and any further treatment would be up to him. I gave him the option. His bath was ready and waiting, his marshmallows laid out for him to see, fresh towels and betadine waiting to clean him up. I sat there, expecting an answer. I got one. The next moments played out as if in a dream. To this day, I do not know what powers were at work, but Boris made his decision clear.
He gingerly walked out of his crate and onto the towel. My arms were crossed under my chin there, watching him. I didn’t move. I was too exasperated and upset to be afraid, so I sat there, watching him. His eyes darted from the pile of waiting marshmallows to my own. Boris was wary, but something very different was happening. He was no longer afraid of me. He cautiously reached for one of the marshmallows, happily munched it while he studied my shocked face, then reached for another and rolled on his back. I nearly fell out of my chair.
Boris was used to the routine and he knew what was expected of him. It was the first moment I realized the utter intelligence of this animal and their ability to rationalize against their instincts of fear and flight, to accept bribes. I never touched my leather welding gloves this day. I never picked him up either. I gave him a sponge bath as he lay on the towel, happily eating his marshmallows, rigid, but accepting whatever I had to do for him. I flushed his abdomen which was pale and pasty today, though it was showing signs of trying to heal. New skin had begun to form at the ends of the giant slash and the membrane that protects the insides of the animal was starting to close. It is still amazing to me today what the body can do for itself if given proper cleaning and care. Boris was beginning to heal and I knew it was entirely possible for him to do so if I continued to keep him and his wound clean and give him the utmost care and quiet. I was set on a path that I had no idea where it would lead with Boris, but he was there with me, by choice now. It was the last time I was wary of him. He had made up his mind and was forever okay with it. Marshmallows being more coveted to the raccoon than any danger he feared, this was a lesson I would use again and again.
It wasn’t long before Boris again enjoyed his bath, and it was even sooner that he was cut back on his marshmallows. Knowing the sugar was horrible for him, he would get a few for walking cooperatively out of his crate, and a few while he lay still for his wound cleaning but that was it. Baths were less frequent now as I could do most of the cleaning with a wet cloth as he lay on his back. There was still no affection, he basically ignored me, but dutifully went through his morning routine consistently every day. His wound was healing brilliantly now, his gash nearly closing. I was no longer flushing his insides, just cleaning the outside. It was closing end to end with the gap in the middle of his belly. Boris was leaving it alone, the suture long forgotten. I was excited with every day and in awe of my charge. We continued our routine and even began spoon feeding as a regular activity. I had found one of my daughter’s old baby spoons and developed a nutritious mix of protein and vitamins for Boris. Since it was the consistency of oatmeal, spoon feeding made less waste and even more important, less to clean off of Boris later. He would lie patiently at the door of his open crate and spoon after spoon was accepted and eaten with full enthusiasm. Yes, I was spoon feeding a wild raccoon and I have photos to prove it. It was pretty darn cool.
One day we had a friend’s daughter out who was taking photography class in school. She asked if she could photograph my animals, as I had several, including a blind wallaby who was a fantastic and rare subject. Her pictures would be in black and white and she promised to give me copies. It was an opportunity to have a record of the spoon fed raccoon which continued to bewilder me and anyone who witnessed it. Boris was a perfect participant. After his meal and the photo shoot, I expected him to retreat for his nap, but he just lay at the door of his crate, as if he was anticipating something. “No more marshmallows for you fat boy!” I told him. Feeling a bit more than bold with the camera nearby, I reached an empty hand out to show him that there was no treat to be had. It was then that another remarkable moment took place, and it is one of my most treasured photographs. Boris reached out a gentle paw and laid it in my hand. He wasn’t reaching for a treat or trying to explore anything, he was simply touching me, just to show that he was okay with it and his eyes rose to mine. Boris had decided that I was his friend…and I was.
My little raccoon never required another towel, another glove or another tense moment to deal with him. I could pick him up at will. Though his wound was healing remarkably, I began to notice alarming changes in his body. His back legs were weakening, and would sometimes twitch. I wasn’t sure if this was normal, due to the extent of his injures. It was after he had finished his antibiotics and his wound had closed that I decided to take him back to Doctor Cash for evaluation. I made the appointment, and we went to see her. This time no crate was needed. Boris rode on the seat next to me in the car, on his most comfy blanket, and I drove with my hand protectively on his body to calm him. Once to the clinic, I wrapped him up much like a baby and we entered the door to much awe and confusion, my little guy clinging to me for comfort and understanding.
Dogs barked around us and Boris just clung tighter. His head would bob from side to side watching for danger. I didn’t know enough to realize the position I had put us both in. At home, holding Boris this way had become a daily occurrence, but taking him out of an environment he trusted could easily challenge his tolerance. Today, I would never carry an injured adult raccoon into public wrapped only in a blanket, but back then, my ignorance was bliss and though it seemed quite odd, I trusted him as much as he trusted me. Right or wrong, we had a deal. Boris never broke it and I wouldn’t either.
Once inside the safety of the exam room, I exposed my bundle to Doc. She gasped at the wound. It was closed. It was perfect. A scar about five inches long across his belly was all that remained. She had a hard time believing this was the same raccoon, especially when I told her that his second suturing only lasted three days. That was weeks ago and her pride in me and Boris was clear and she expressed it. She advanced my training gradually after that day. Her faith in me meant more than anything. She would teach me what I needed to know to save them, many all on my own.
We finally had to address the purpose for that visit. The news was not good. Boris had contracted canine distemper, the neurological strain, probably from the dogs that attacked him in the beginning. The regiment of strong antibiotics had kept it at bay, but now that they were completed and his system had been so challenged by the severity of his wound, his body was succumbing at record speed. She prescribed him a new medication and yet another round of even stronger antibiotics and I took him home without much hope. Canine distemper was a fatal condition and I could tell from her face that she held little hope for my friend, despite all that we had overcome together.
Boris’ condition advanced daily. The weakness in his back legs became a constant, rhythmic twitch that never subsided, even when he slept. Within a week he was paralyzed from the waist down. His loss of bladder and bowel control became a problem for him as he was becoming too weak to get out of his own waste. Boris was no longer able to walk, though his peaceful disposition and the ever curiosity of his eyes and front paws remained intact. My focus for his care became quality of life for his final days. I knew of no way to achieve that, but became creative. I began to diaper Boris after many accidents during times of carrying him around with me. He became a constant addition to my left hip. His back legs hanging limp, my hand securely under his protected bottom, we did everything together. We took long walks in the woods around my house, allowing him to touch the bark of a tree, smell the scent of a wild rose bush and even catch an unsuspecting bug if one became handy. Boris lived his life under my arm for many weeks as the virus continued to ravage his body despite every effort made to protect him.
It was when his front legs began to jerk with the familiar rhythm that I knew we were losing the battle completely. His dexterous fingers could no longer hold onto my shoulder while we walked, or secure a much savored marshmallow to be eaten with great ecstasy. He was slowly becoming paralyzed and I knew his life was coming to an end. It was then that I learned the true foundation for wildlife rehabilitation. I learned that sometimes you have to love them more than you want to save them. Sometimes you have to love them enough to stop their suffering. Sometimes you have to care more about their quality of life than your own failure. I had decided to let Boris go. We would visit Doctor Cash and end his struggle once and for all.
I was ready to handle my decision, but she was not. Doc was completely pained with my request to put Boris down. She had taken his recovery to heart as I did. She was determined to save him even now. She changed his medication yet again, and sent me home with something more effective than medicine. Hope. I had lost it all, but here I was driving home with Boris sitting happily in his seat beside me, his little helpless paws curled in against his chest, our favorite blanket securely holding him in place instead of wrapped around him to bury in my yard. I was excruciatingly happy and cried all the way home. My family was just as joyful. A picnic erupted which included Boris, at the table, enjoying the sunshine on a glorious afternoon. We all could not have been happier as the little raccoon was not to be buried this day. He had hope and hope was everything to all of us.
Over the years the animals that came to me for care would be regarded very differently. The fascination for their trust replaced with avoidance for it to ensure their safety upon release. With Boris, I was just learning the profession of wildlife rehabilitation and was not prepared for a bond between people and wild animals. I knew it could easily happen with babies, but rarely with an adult like Boris. There is always an element of submission with an injured animal who eventually gives up on escape to trust and accept the care it is given. This sort of bond helps to ease the stress of the captive injured, but I never again found myself diapering and integrating another wild animal into my daily personal routine. With Boris, it seemed necessary. I couldn’t leave him to lay helpless in his crate all day long, so I did what I felt best for him. I knew him inside and out (literally) and he was a part of me and who I was becoming. My experience with him, the gift of him, was the foundation for everything I have learned about wild animals. Even the term “wild” changed meaning during those first months. It does not mean aggression as I once believed. It is a geographical description, for their place is where man does not venture. They belong where we do not, but they live as we do. They build a home, care for their young, hunt and gather their food, prepare for bad weather, and defend their own, their freedom and their territory the same way we would if faced with an intruder. Any way they can. That is wild, and we are not far from them. We live more similarly than we think.
They are not asking for hand outs, but they will take advantage of opportunity. They may accept our presence and share territory in exchange for the availability of food and shelter, and the dependency may someday put them in danger. It is our responsibility to allow them their space, and as progress diminishes this option, people who rehabilitate wild animals become more and more necessary to ease suffering as the injured and orphaned are discovered by the tens of thousands each year. All they need is a little support and every advantage to be back on their way to their life in the wild, but for Boris, that day would never come, and he seemed to sense it.
Soon my little friend would lose the use of his front legs altogether. Only his ability to move his head and eat remained, and we were forced back into the spoon feeding routine that had once symbolized an exchange of trust, but now was used for the necessity of survival. Boris would sit propped up in my lap and take his bites off the spoon clumsily, tipping his head back to swallow, his reflexes growing even weaker. At night, I checked on him constantly, back to the beginning, almost too where we started. Each breath feared to be his last, my nights plagued once again bolting upright to check the looming clock, panicked that I had let too much time pass and would miss an opportunity to help him. I would leap from my bed to find him soundly sleeping, his breath far too shallow; his body far too still. I would pet his soft fur and speak soothing, loving words to him. Now he seldom awoke to respond, his body ravaged, his brain disintegrating, my Boris was just a shadow of his former, formidable self. Raccoons weren’t meant to be exposed to canine diseases, and Boris taught me to hate distemper and what it did to the raccoon. I have never fought so hard, carried such hope and failed so miserably at any case as I did Boris. We overcame so much and we were losing to something microscopic that we couldn’t even see without an entire laboratory to locate. It just wasn’t fair at all. He was suffering and I couldn’t bear to let it go on.
It was a Sunday. Boris lay limp in my arms all day long as I cried openly into his soft fur. His swallowing reflexes were failing and his urine had stopped two days ago. His kidneys had failed and would soon poison his tattered body. Boris was now paralyzed completely and his breathing would soon stop. I imagined this experience for him. I felt it would be very frightening to go through, even if it would finally put an end to his struggle. My vet clinic was closed today and I had planned to take him in the next morning to finally put him down. Monday never came for Boris. That night, I was faced with a choice that gave me no choice. Not if I truly loved the little raccoon. He experienced a seizure that was terrifying to witness. His body tensed in my arms, and relentlessly and violently shook what remained of his frail little body. Afterward, his eyes found mine. It was all he could still do. He could tell me clearly with his eyes what his body language could no longer say; “I am afraid.”
There were pain pills in my house left over from some old human injury. I knew exactly where they were hidden from curious children and I found them through my tears. I began crushing them up with the back of a spoon like I had done so many dozens of pills ago for my Boris. Into the syringe it all went, then flavored with the pancake syrup I had come to know and use so well. I had poured myself a big glass of wine to find my courage and steady my shaking hands. Boris took his medicine as always, the best that he could, now struggling to swallow; much of what he got down was more by accident than anything. I followed the dose with a few syringes of the wine from my glass, hoping the alcohol would intensify the effect of the pain killers and put him to sleep. It seemed to work and Boris enjoyed the taste of the fruity wine. We shared a drink together in a way. Old friends toasting a damn good try for survival. We had been through so much and we would break all the rules this final night together. I never viewed any of my charges as my animals. They all belonged to themselves and to the untamed world they were born into. I was merely a stopping place on their journey, and I always put my faith in making the most humane choices for them when faced with a body that wouldn’t repair.
Tonight, I set Boris free the only way I had left to do so. His breathing shallowed into a mere twitch of his torso, his eyes closed finally and forever. He had fallen into a deep sleep of which I would not let him wake. I knew I had to be certain. I lifted his emaciated body into my lap. No response whatsoever: his head heavy, his familiar weight even heavier for his comatose state. I had something with me that I would use only this once, and never again. A plastic sandwich bag to this day still represents that terrible night to me. I put it over his nose, holding it securely in place and without struggle, without fight, without so much as a moment of resistance; my little Boris left my world forever.
The wailing that came from within me at that moment was the first and only time in my life thus far, that my spirit was completely shattered by a death. I felt a loss that was overwhelming, that I cannot describe. He was my first critical case, my teacher, my student and my constant companion. He had even become far more than that to me, something I never expected. Boris was my best friend. I had come to know him better than I knew any human around me, and I trusted him even more. I knew how he would react to any situation and I knew what his body language meant. I could read him like you are reading this book and I had learned more about the mysteries of the wild and the possibilities of medicine and diligent care than I would from any other source or experience later on. I had found my calling in this little battered raccoon, and I would never turn from it. Boris was my hero, my mentor and my counterpart from nature. He was everything I admired, everything I loved about wildlife, but also he inspired me to learn more. I found a desire to fix the unfixable, cure the incurable and the courage to admit to myself when the fight for them was over, and I had the guts to stop trying.
Today I see his face in the countless photos, paintings and statues of the raccoon that I appreciate and admire with all of my heart. I feel his spirit when a wild thing fights for freedom with its last breath and I remember the bond every time a tiny paw is laid as an act of trust and truce, into my hand.
If heaven does exist for animals, my Boris is there, waiting for me. In my mind I see him doing something that I had only hoped to see on Earth; his fat, furry figure up a tree, casually dangling from the tiniest branch, nature’s comedy show with the mask of a bandit and the courage of a bear. But the only thing that Boris ever stole was my heart. He gave so much more than he took, and his legacy lives on in the skills of my hands, and the lessons I learned through his suffering, triumphs and ultimate end.
“Go free my little wild friend. Though I wanted to send you home to the forest, I could only release you to the heavens. Forever loved, forever cherished, never to be forgotten, you made your mark on this world and left it a better place for others of your kind… because once upon a time, many years ago, you touched me.”
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