Maine or Rac-coon?

Shortly after moving to Terre Haute in 2005, we lost one of our two cats to bladder cancer. Two months later, a Maine Coon kitten showed up at my friends’ backdoor with a terrible respiratory infection and she took it to the vet for treatment. My husband Joe and I adopted it as a playmate for our remaining orange Manx cat, Oliver. Lil’ Tyke, as he became known, came to live with us in October.

Tyke darted out of the house one Saturday evening in May 2006 while I was out of town and Joe didn’t notice his absence until the following morning. When I returned home, we looked in every tree and under every bush but we couldn’t find Tyke. There were instances where we thought we’d seen him scurry by the house but because our house sits on almost an acre of land backing up to a creek, we could have very well seen a raccoon. And, since Tyke had never been outside, he had probably reverted to survival mode.

I called our vet for suggestions. We live within the city limits but we’ve entertained the occasional coyote, deer, fox, wood chuck, opossum, turkey vulture, snapping turtle, raccoon and eagle. I was afraid Tyke would either become a late-night snack or starve for lack of survival skills.

The vet suggested we get a live trap and attempt to catch him, since it was unlikely that he would come back into the house of his own accord. Rural King is a popular hardware and farm store in our area that has just about anything one could want – from venison seasoning and overalls to biscuit mix, dried pigs ears and the board game Catopoly. They offered three different trap models.

Old fashioned ingenuity met with high-tech information gathering as I researched tips to “live trapping” cats on the Internet. “Place a kitchen towel across the wire bottom as cats do not like the feel of metal on their feet. Use tuna in oil to lure them into the trap – the scent is irresistible. Cover the trap with a towel or other covering so it is not easily distinguishable. Check the trap periodically to ensure that an animal isn’t caged longer than necessary. Be extremely careful as trapped wild animals can be unhappy.” Two city slickers who hadn’t mowed their own lawn just two short years before were going to attempt to capture their escapee cat. Get the picture?

It’s uncanny how similar in color tiger-striped Maine Coon cats are to raccoons. In our pursuit of one 9-month-old cat, we caught (and released) the following animals over two weeks: one opossum, one gray and white cat, one wood chuck and numerous raccoons of varying sizes. Canned tuna rose 10 points on the stock market. Can you imagine the discussion at the raccoon house? “Whew, Rocky, I see they caught you last night. They got Junior on Monday. It took him three hours and several dunks in the creek to get that darn oil out of his coat. Humiliating!”

We went through nine kitchen towels and five bath towels. It seems that when you trap an animal on red wood mulch, tuna oil turns into an adhesive and the towels become unusable for the next night’s catch.

Joe would don a “release outfit” when he went out to inspect the trap in the early morning hours. He would put on long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and leather gloves and proceed to the cage. Excitement was in the air when we saw the trap door had been sprung. However, it was anyone’s guess as to what exactly was in the cage or how the freed animal would react – would it exit the cage and run for the brush or would it turn, growl and charge the person who set it free? Apparently, wild animals do not like to be trapped overnight in the hot, humid air in a confined space, covered with tuna, oil and mulch.

To release the animal, it was necessary to place one’s hands in jeopardy to draw up the trap door to enable the animal to escape. We made trapping attempts on our redwood deck, under the front bushes by our bedroom window, by the side of the house and by the bushes near the front door. To say that a trapped, caged wild animal was unhappy was an understatement.

My perseverance was waning. I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in two weeks and I was beginning to hallucinate. I would go to work each day and then begin the night’s trapping festivities as soon as I returned home. I purchased a chaise lounge in which to sleep by the sliding glass deck door, in case Tike found the courage to return home. The only thing I caught during these times was a roach that squeezed under the screen door and ran up the wall. I screamed so loud that it scared Oliver and woke Joe with a start from the bedroom. Seems he thought I was being attacked by an intruder. He was correct.

I turned again to the Internet for three final key insights: The empty cage should be placed close to the house along with all camouflage materials for several hours before dusk, so the items take on the surrounding scent. The trap should be baited just before dusk, when feeding time is optimal. Finally, it’s not wise to leave the trap out all night. If an animal wasn’t trapped at dusk, the trap should be retrieved.

Armed with new information and an uptick in determination, I placed the empty cage and camouflage at the corner of the house. Before dusk, I baited the trap with tuna du jour. It was positioned at the corner of the house but in view of the kitchen window so if an animal became trapped, I could release it before going to bed. Joe had fallen asleep early after a day filled with mowing, trimming and tree limb clean-up.

An animal came out of the bushes and circled the cage. I couldn’t bear the suspense so I went into the bedroom and waited ten minutes before returning to check the trap. I turned on the flood light by the side of the house and saw that the door had been sprung. As I approached the cage, I called Tyke’s name, hesitantly. The frightened animal stared back with wild, golden eyes and its matted, dark striped hair poked out of the side of the cage. Pungent tuna oil wafted from the cage. I saw for the first time in two weeks a hint of recollection in Tyke’s eyes as he looked at me.

I brought him in the house and released him into the guest bedroom. He was thin and his fur was filthy. He retreated under the bed and I thought for one moment that my eyes had played tricks on me. I could very well have just released an adolescent raccoon under the bed. I shut the door and said a prayer.

In the morning, sunshine filtered through the curtains into the bedroom and Tyke sat atop the guest bed, exhausted and shaken. He seemed happy to be home. Oliver hissed at him and then licked his fur (he’s always been partial to tuna). It took a strong soapy bath and several weeks before Tyke felt at home again. He is now content to hunt birds and squirrels from the nearest window ledge or from behind the closest curtain.

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