Until I met my husband, I had always thought of raccoons as adorable furry critters that seemed to invite cuddling. I admired their precocious spirit, curiosity and adept way of handling food with their nimble, prehensile paws.
While I was growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario in suburban Toronto, a baby raccoon occasionally fell into one of our open garbage cans, too small to climb up the sides to freedom. Fascinated, I'd watch my dad as he tipped the can on its side and let the wide-eyed beast waddle out.
At dusk, I'd sometimes see a few appear over the eaves on our neighbours' roof, forming a line of lumpy silhouettes like a string of stealthy burglars. The escapades of these wild wanderers, which seemed to mirror my own desire for adventure, earned my love and respect.
That was long before I became a homeowner in rural British Columbia and heard my husband's stories.
"A lawyer I know went into a client's empty house and found a family of raccoons living inside," he said.
"That's sweet," I interrupted, picturing a host of antics from these little beasties that undoubtedly must have entertained the likely-too-stuffy lawyer.
My mother, after all, had kept a raccoon as a pet while growing up on a farm in Woodstock, Ont. She let it cling to her head like a favoured child or perch adoringly on her teenaged shoulders. Photos in our family album proved its cuteness - and innocence.
In my husband's view, these raccoons had lurked furtively in the shadows or behind doors, waiting to attack like a crack-fuelled gang caught in an illegal squat.
"They came after my friend," he continued, "and one ended up biting him in the stomach. He had to get rabies shots. It was awful."
Ugh. I confess I had to reach for a more compassionate response.
The man must have cornered or threatened the poor things. I had difficulty visualizing a small huddle of fuzzy bodies slowly advancing, encircling this intruder, then lunging at him. Their actions must have been in self-defence.
But my husband, a lawyer himself, insists that raccoons have meaner motives. He claims that while strolling on the road in front of our home, he and one of these malevolent marauders had a testy standoff.
As he tells it, he approached the humpbacked bandit at the side of the road. It wouldn't move. It stared him down. After too many minutes, it finally ventured across the road, but continued glaring at my husband. It even swivelled its head back to face my hubby, eyes trained on him standing stunned and motionless.
Sounds like a game of chicken in slow motion, I thought. The raccoon won.
A transplant from the U.S. east coast, my husband confides that he's never before seen raccoons as big as those in British Columbia. Despite their nocturnal nature, ours like to show themselves in daylight.
He shudders when he sees one dash across our backyard and warns me about the threat of raccoon droppings.
Those benign clumps that look like dried brown earth?
"Don't touch them," he cries. "They'll kill you. Raccoon feces contain a parasite that is lethal to humans."
But loss of aesthetics, not life, taught me the true nature of raccoons. We had a lovely lily pond, a standalone ceramic tub, on our front deck, resplendent with fuchsia-coloured blooms that floated serenely above four live goldfish. What Zen tranquillity our Monet-like tableau evoked for both of us.
Three days after we had placed the fish in the pond, they were gone.
No sign of the two lilies, once brilliant and full, either. We never did find them. The lily pads were torn out, their roots chewed off, the water muddied. Some heartless invader had flung our lifelike turtle, which we had added as a quirky touch of floating kitsch, about three metres across the grass. Its helpless plastic body lay punctured by vicious teeth.
Leading away from the pond, we saw wet footprints on the deck. Raccoon prints. Some masked runt had soaked and supped in our makeshift swimming pool, leaving a wet trail that exited the bestial bathing chamber.
Now I'm in cahoots with my hubby as we jokingly conjure nasty revenge plots, chortling like devilish children. Staunch believers in the principle of live and let live, we would never carry them out ... ever? Raccoons, beware.
Heather Conn lives in Roberts Creek, B.C.