Late Tuesday night, biking home from a friend’s house, I spotted a furry object on the sidewalk. This surprised me, as most critters flee when a person approaches, but not this one. So I stopped right there and met the eyes of a distressed baby raccoon. He looked at me, mewing and peeping. I spoke in a gentle voice: “What’s going on, little one? What do you need?” He clambered up my bike tire and clung for dear life, peeping in earnest: a direct cry for help; a situation I could not ignore.
I called my friend Miriam, whose house I’d just left, knowing she was awake and knowing she has a compassionate heart. Quickly, she researched our options and said she’d be by my side soon with a box and blankets. The raccoon retreated from my bike and laid in the grass. I sat cross-legged next to him, singing a loving-kindness chant. (A chant I’d just taught in my mindfulness class that evening.) He calmed, tucking his face into his fur, cold and scared.
Miriam constructed his evening nest, and we hoped mama would return for him that night. When we stood, about to part ways, still wide-eyed from these events, Miriam spotted a different baby raccoon in the street, recently killed by a car. A sibling of our little friend. It's no surprise he emphatically asked for help: he just witnessed a traumatic death. In life, we don’t often see the backstories of others, but they’re there and they're important, and this particular backstory was clear.
After little sleep, I awoke and readied to teach meditation at the Y, but first needed to check with my raccoon. When I approached the box, his eyes were open. He was alive and okay, but not retrieved by mama, so box and baby came home with me: sat on my back porch while I taught.
I cleared my day to find this little raccoon a refuge, trying to embody the words of Mary Webb: “If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path.” In beautiful weather, I drove to Green Bay, where the Bay Beach wildlife refuge was teeming with kids and adults. I unloaded the box and walked inside. The setting felt strange, like a hotel lobby, people milling around while I attempted to “check in” my animal—a process I expected, somehow, to be more intimate. And in this sea of humanity, I was told, “We only take raccoons from Brown county. We don’t have room for others.” My Outagamie-county puffball was turned away—no room at the inn. Though this was disappointing, I understood the situation. My parting gift: two more numbers to call. The first shelter only accepted squirrels. A sinking feeling spread through me: what if—due to limited resources—I must send this baby back into the wild? I tried to stay present: make the next and last available call.
Sue, from Wildlife of Wisconsin, answered the phone and wanted to hear my story. Where did you find him? She listened with care and compassion. “Yes, we’ll take him. I can meet you at a gas station in Reedsville later this afternoon.” (By the end of this day, I’d drive 3 hours during my “swerve to be kind.”)
Late in the afternoon, on my way to meet Sue, I saw multiple dead animals on the road, including raccoons. I knew I wasn’t “saving” this one—who knows how long he’ll live—but I was answering his call for help; making a small difference. He purred, chattered, and moved around the box. I drove, feeling fear—the uncertainty of life—and also feeling focused and aware. At the gas station, Sue was in the midst of a hectic day and still attended to us with care. She transferred the animal to her car, saying, “We’re only supposed to take 60 raccoons, but I always take more.” I was teary-eyed with gratitude, thanking her both for her work and her kindness. She replied, “We need people like you who really care. Imagine how many people just walk on by.”
I returned to my van and sobbed. Big, heavy sobs of relief, love, gratitude, and grief. (My friend Miriam, who tended this raccoon with me, recently lost her husband—my dear friend—to cancer. This was all interrelated in a raw and powerful way.) Seeing more roadkill on my drive and listening to a dharma talk on death and impermanence, I knew I hadn’t done anything grand. My actions were a small drop in the kindness bucket. I can’t save all raccoons, but I could support this raccoon, who so clearly asked for my help. It seems that's the most important thing we can do: Help the person right in front of us. When someone asks for help—in either a straightforward or hesitant way—we can stop to be kind; we can swerve a little from our path.
When I got home, exhausted and relieved, I walked around my yard. The previous week, I saw only weeds in my flower beds, which reflected the resistance in my grieving heart. But on this evening, I felt joy and wonder. I saw only flowers and abundance. I felt love, gratitude, and happiness. And slowly I realized: I didn’t save that raccoon; He saved me.