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The Wild and the Tamed

By Carrie Laben From Issue No. 4

Runner-up for Outlook Springs Nonfiction Prize

It was a hot day when we met, far enough into July in western New York that my family had to worry about the crops wilting and the well running dry. My mother decided it was a good day to defrost the chest freezer.

We kids were assigned a role that was part job and part fun, since making us stay on task otherwise would have been a chore in itself. We got to tote the detached slabs and chips of ice out of the house, where we could play with them until they disappeared in the heat and then return for more. My idea of play was to sit with a chunk of the ice in my lap to damply air-condition myself and read. The one I had carried out to the back shed was a doozy, big enough that it overhung my knees by a few inches. As I read, shifting a little bit now and then to keep the cold from becoming uncomfortable, the raccoon ventured out of the other room.

He was about the size of a toy Yorkshire terrier at this stage of his life. He’d managed alone for a week, or at least that’s how long a female raccoon and the rest of her litter had been dead on the shoulder of Route 20 near our house, but he was only semi-competent in the ways of raccoondom and his instincts would have left him yearning for the society of mom and siblings, not yet ready for a solitary adulthood. Also, he was thirsty. I sat silent, letting the ice drip into a pool at my feet. He nosed into it and drank, and then he climbed onto the slab, into my lap. He slid around until the ice was nearly gone. When I went back to my mother, he followed me.

I knew better than to play with wild animals. They might be sick. Their mothers might smell me and not come back for them. They might go looking for friendship from other humans, ill-intentioned ones. I had been told all this, though I don’t remember by whom –parents, grandmother, school perhaps. But I had also read Rascal, with its taunting subtitle, A Memoir of a Better Era. I had read Owls in the Family. Julie of the Wolves. My Side of the Mountain, in which the protagonist adopts (steals) a peregrine falcon chick—an endangered species!—during his preadolescent stint in the Catskills. I was steeped in literature where interacting with wild creatures was a sign of good character, intelligence, and engagement with the natural world. Not at all like my peers, whose interactions with wild animals seemed to involve shooting them. There was a kid who rode my school bus who bragged about pinning snakes in puddles with rocks and watching them drown. Julie of the Wolves would never do something like that.

My family shot animals too, of course, sometimes. Cows too sick to stand up. A cat who had been run over by a lawn mower. A different, older raccoon who had staggered into our front yard and lurched in circles, drooling. Rats in the corn crib and woodchucks in the hayfields. But these were some form of necessity.

I had also read King Solomon’s Ring, in which Konrad Lorenz—whose much-lamented affiliation with the Nazi party I would not learn of until years later—made his great discoveries by living with tame wild creatures, everything from graylag geese to capuchin monkeys to jackdaws. Lorenz was careful to distinguish between his tame animals and those that were domesticated, believing that domesticated animals over many generations became reduced versions of their wild counterparts, interested in eating and copulating at the expense of more complex behaviors. He left me with the impression that domestication was a simple degenerative process—that wildness, once lost, could never be regained. The only way to know the true essence of the animal was to closely observe an individual of wild descent.

So keeping the raccoon was science. It was adventure. It was compassion, because he wouldn’t have survived much longer as an orphan. There was nothing in my upbringing, despite the warnings, to make me turn this tiny bear-shaped animal away.

My mother took the arrival of the raccoon with more sangfroid than I expected. She gave me some freezer-burned leftovers to feed him, and let me fill a box with old towels to make it cozy. He would have to stay in the shed, though. There were limits.

These limits didn’t last very long. When my siblings or I were awake, Cooney (another set of implications I had no idea about at the time) was with us, whether we were indoors or out. He followed us on rambles up to the cow pasture and down to the creek, where he fished for minnows while we hunted fossils. He would stick close to my father during morning and evening rounds, when Dad was likely to be carrying a sandwich or pastry that he might share—although when confronted by an Egg McMuffin, Cooney refused to touch it. This became one of Mom’s parables on fast food. Summers, we were outdoors so much that it was hard to see the line getting blurred until the day he figured out that he could peel a screen from its frame and let himself into the kitchen for the butter on the table. When we were asleep, he didn’t seem to mind staying outside. We called our shed “the kitty kitchen” because that was where we fed the feral cats, and that was a good place for a little raccoon at night.

The cats got dry food, and milk, and all the wildlife that they could catch. They did not get neutered or vaccinated or mourned for when one was hit by a car, stepped on by a cow, succumbed to distemper. Every summer we kids would play with a new batch of kittens, and by autumn most of those kittens would be gone. The population was augmented by ignorant or callous people who disposed of their pets by tossing them out along a country road.

If Konrad Lorenz could have seen these cats, he might have rethought his theories on domestication. Nothing in thousands of years of domestication made a cat unsuited to producing offspring that lived off the land. A cat named Art, brought to us by family friends from Syracuse, became the genetic matriarch of the whole establishment, cranking out fourteen kittens to a litter, two or three litters a summer. Though Art herself was tame, she spent more time teaching her kittens to hunt than to socialize, and soon it was common to spot cats with her black-and-white coloring and slender build disappearing into stalls or under bales of hay at the sight of a human.

One summer, a woman driving along Route 20 stopped her car, knocked on our door, and tearfully harangued our mother for fifteen minutes about how our cats should be confined. We laughed at her after she was gone—a confused, maybe crazy, city woman.

In retrospect, I feel a lot of sympathy for her. Not only were the cats dying, they were also killing. I had read a lot of research about how hard outdoor cats can hit the native wildlife in their territories, research that made me uneasy as a budding bird-lover, but it didn’t really sink in until years later when the cows were gone and the main barn burned down. Without a place to live most of the cats dispersed, and suddenly there were titmice and grosbeaks and red squirrels and chipmunks all around my parents’ house. When I was growing up, seeing a chipmunk was a rare treat.

On the other hand, these weren’t our pets. Our pets did get fixed, and they got vet care – sometimes quite expensive vet care, as when a fluffy indoor cat named Smokey swallowed several pieces of styrofoam and blocked up his intestines. These cats were feral, and a feral cat who wasn’t free to kill was a feral cat we had no reason to keep around.

Starting with the great window-screen massacre, Cooney began to make himself unwelcome. He repeated the screen trick no matter how much duct tape we patched the windows with. He stole. He shat indiscriminately. He would nip and claw in play, lacking the social instinct that helps a puppy or kitten grow out of that behavior. When I tried to raise some chicks, he got into their cardboard-box enclosure and bit off each chick’s head and ate none of the bodies. I caught him at the tail end of the spree and kicked the box off the porch, with him inside, in a blind instinctive fury. That probably wasn’t why he decided to move out to the barn, but afterwards I felt that I had wronged him. He was a raccoon. He couldn’t manage complex ethics about killing any better than the boy on the school bus, or Konrad Lorenz, or me.

The cows in the main barn didn’t interest Cooney. He moved out to the smaller, older barn where we kept our horse, a black mare named Plaid. Plaid had once been an undistinguished trotter, then bounced from home to home. She came to us when the neighbor who owned her didn’t want her any more. We didn’t need a horse. I was one of the only twelve-year-old girls in America who had no interest in owning a horse. But Mom’s soft spot for orphans won the day again and I found myself feeding and watering a horse anyway. We tried to ride her, once, whereupon she bucked my brother off and kicked him. We left her alone after that.

Since I’d read Rascal, I wasn’t surprised when raccoon and horse became buddies. I was surprised, though, that this touchy, kicking beast was docile when Cooney clawed his way up her tail to sleep on her back. It turns out that horses, social animals, don’t like being left alone.

Since I was the one stuck feeding the horse, I was the one who spent the most time with her, and by extension, with Cooney. After my chores were done I’d climb into the loft of the old barn, empty now but for twine and swallow’s nests, and read my books of survival and adventure, and make up long stories where I was the one on my own in the wilderness with the friendly beasts, gathering berries and building lean-tos. Sometimes, Cooney would climb up and hang out with me, like the old days. Or Art would spend a few hours curled by my side, revisiting the domestic dream of petting. It was a cut-rate peaceable kingdom, but it was mine.

Perhaps the most famous experiment on the subject of domestication began in Lorenz’s old enemy the Soviet Union in 1959. Attempting to trace the route from wolves to dogs—our first domesticated companions—a man named Dmitri Belyaev set out to replicate the process. Using foxes from a fur farm, Belyaev set up a very simple protocol: walk towards the foxes. Note which are the last to run away (in scientific terms, those with the smallest “flight distance”.)  Breed those foxes. Walk towards the next generation. Repeat.

The tame foxes got tamer. They also, without any other selection
process, begin to exhibit dog-like behavior, wagging their tails and licking humans and whimpering to attract their attention. They even started to look domesticated, with tails more likely to be curly and coats more likely to be mottled with patches of white than those of their wild counterparts.

Besides being fascinating from a scientific perspective, these changes also came in handy after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the project found itself out in the cold funding-wise. Today, rich kids can buy a domestic silver fox from America’s sole Russian-domestic-fox importer for roughly nine thousand dollars and not only live their own Rascal-style fantasy but support work that has now taken place over more than forty generations of foxes.

Over those generations (and parallel work done with rats, ermines, and other species, as well as a symmetrical process to breed the wildest possible foxes, rats, etc.) scientists have determined that domestication, though strongly physiological, is by no means 100% genetic. Learned stress responses, particularly in a pregnant or nursing mother mammal, can also impact how her offsprings’ brains and hormones react to a novel situation like an approaching human. This may sound like shades of that old Soviet Lysenkoism, but it is not. It is only one more piece of emerging evidence that nature/nurture is not in fact a dichotomy so much as a feedback loop.

As the days shortened through autumn to winter, Cooney got fatter and less social, even with Plaid. I would climb into the loft and spot him in a far dark corner, and he would raise his head to sniff and then curl back into sleep. He was big enough now that I began to be a little afraid of him, more aware that he could bite and claw. I remembered that full-grown raccoons could drown hunting dogs and devour the eggs of alligators. My flight distance increased. Art and I stayed on the other side of the loft; the light was better for reading there anyway. When winter came in earnest I moved my reading indoors. Art spent most of her time in the cow barn, basking in the rising body heat of sixty bovines and picking off the mice that sought to do the same. Plaid grew shaggy and redoubled her appetite. Cooney slept.

Spring came sooner for Cooney than for me, and I didn’t see when he left the barn. He was adult now. He needed to make his own way in the world. I had no idea if he would remember me or care if he did. What I remembered was that feeling of fear in the last few weeks we’d spent together, the feeling that I was the interloper, the one at risk.

So I made no attempt to seek Cooney out, and gradually he obeyed the instincts that told him to go find a female raccoon, a territory more suitable for young. From time to time, my father would spot him while doing the night rounds, and let me know that he was still alive and fat. Then it was summer again. Art had seven kittens under the front porch and I moved my reading headquarters there, the better to spend time with her. One morning I woke up to seven blood-soaked young rats, all dead, laid out on the doorstep and ready for breakfast.

This was always how these stories ended: Rascal must return to the wild when he reaches maturity. Julie leaves the wolves behind for their own safety. In the sequels to My Side of the Mountain, the falcon goes free. According to my extensive reading, humans interacting with wild animals was a childhood thing—not just for humans but for the animals too.

I had made no great scientific discoveries in my observations of Cooney; I hadn’t bothered to keep a journal or do experiments. I was beginning to catch inklings that I would never be a scientist, even though that was what smart people did, even though I would go on to major in natural resource management, even though I would never stop despising myself a little for failing at it. On the other hand, I thought that maybe Konrad Lorenz had it a little easy. I could have figured out imprinting too, if I’d been around the right geese at the right time. Maybe there was nothing left to discover about tame raccoons.

At any rate, if I had done the world no good I had also done it no harm. Cooney had come and gone as these things did, the story had played out to its appropriate conclusion.

Then, as summer lingered into an arid autumn, Cooney returned. And my father shot him.

It happened during the night rounds, and if I heard the shot, I don’t remember. For that matter I barely remember being told, the next day, that Cooney was dead. I felt no sorrow, and felt ashamed of that, so mostly I didn’t think about it at all. I grew up. I adopted a kitten during a visit home, a great-granddaughter of Art’s. She has Art’s small build and bright blue eyes, throwbacks to a pampered Siamese ancestor generations before. She is spayed, vaccinated, and kept strictly inside the house so that she cannot menace my bird feeders with her ancestral hunting prowess. She is a sweet, hand-licking pet to me—and yet, for reasons I have never known, avoids nearly every other human she has ever met.

Over time, the belief that domesticated animals are lesser versions of their wild kin, diminished by an association that humans forced on them, has been challenged by a new theory that grows in part from Belyaev’s work. This theory holds that dogs and cats, at least, may have started the domestication process themselves, choosing to associate with humans for our charming habit of leaving food scraps around the place. When wolves (more properly, wolf-like proto-canids) and wildcats scavenged at human dumps, the frightened ones would be driven off, and the aggressive ones would be killed. Only those able to combine bravery with friendliness thrived on this rich source of calories. They would learn to observe human gestures and emotions the way others of their kind read scents on the wind. Eventually, some of them entered into a form of symbiosis with humans that persists to this day.

In the world of this theory, domestication is not like slavery; it is more like the decision to marry, giving up some license in the hope of future benefit. It is not a system in which one species dominates and the other submits, at the expense of the latter’s dignity; it is a system in which a clever species learns to exploit a tricky food source so successfully that it is able to expand its territory around the globe while its close relatives dwindle. Of course, we humans are a fickle food source, and the lifestyle can be dangerous—but so can running down elk or digging into gopher burrows. Like every evolutionary pathway, it involves trade-offs, and competition with other creatures angling for the same niche, and the risk that you will be in the wrong time and place, that your particular set of adaptations will be wrong for the challenges you face.

Years later, troubled by the lacunae in my memory of those times, I asked my father exactly why he’d shot Cooney. I was expecting a pained silence, a bit of disappointment in me for bringing up such uncomfortable family history. But he seemed glad that I’d finally asked.

“Well, when he moved back into the barn, he wasn’t really tame any more. And he brought four other raccoons with him. I don’t know if he had a little harem or what. But there was a county-wide warning for rabies that year, and we couldn’t let ourselves get overrun.”

Some form of necessity, then.

I’d thought adult raccoons were solitary, but since I was a child the research has moved ahead. Sometimes, it turns out, a small group of male raccoons band together to hold a particularly desirable territory—say, a warm barn with a reliable source of food nearby. Far from having a harem, it’s up in the air whether Cooney got even one chance at spreading his genes to another generation; his low flight distance and his curiosity and his ability to get along with humans. Humans don’t seem to be in the market for new friends these days.

Had I left him where I found him, would he have lived longer? Certainly not. Would he have suffered less? Starvation is slow. Would I have become a better or a worse person? Perhaps less fatalistic—which is that?

About Carrie Laben More From Issue No. 4