Springtime Thoughts

by Conrad Black
Hope bursts out again, with a raccoon family.

While casting about to find something to write about apart from another lamentation over the weakness of most Western political leadership, the collapse of fiscal integrity in all but a few countries, the charade of Iranian nuclear discussions, and the decline and fall of practically everybody, my thoughts alit on Herbert the Raccoon, as my wife christened him, who has largely been living in a little half-moon balcony adjacent to my wife’s third-floor dressing room. In the cold snap in March, my wife put a heater up against the window and Herbert gratefully attached himself like a limpet to the window, turning about every hour to give the benefit of the heat to his other side. A young raccoon, Herbert was just big enough to reach the ledge on the balcony with his front paws and peer out over the view of several miles, his little pointy ears confidently breaking the horizon when we looked out the window from behind him, within the house. His dark, ringed eyes surveyed the scene with the worldly detachment of Jacques Cartier grasping the immense proportions of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence nearly 500 years ago, and famously concluding (rather negatively, as it turned out) that “it is the land God gave to Cain.”

This house is set on a relatively large urban property in Toronto, bordered along one side by a ravine, and we have an unusually high incidence of wildlife, including foxes, deer, skunks, possum, and feral cats. My wife’s two magnificent Hungarian Kuvaszok, white dogs of over 100 pounds that are devoted to their owners but skeptical about everyone else, generally keep the non-domestic animals at a distance, except for the skunks, of course, who go where they please. But last year, a feral kitten fell down a runoff pipe beside the house, and the constant meowing of the kitten, and its sibling at the top of the pipe, eventually alerted us to their presence. To the distant pleasure of their brave and resourceful mother, gardeners dug up the pipe, opened it, and the kittens were conveyed to the veterinarian like two matched Infants of Prague. They returned after a few days in cracking health and undiminished voice and rule the housekeeper’s attached home with the feline assurance of the MGM lion, princes of beasts, and are even deferred to by my wife’s dogs, who are very proprietary with everyone else.

We were somewhat complacently contemplating our status as helpers to nature’s tenacity of life, when the head of the work crew that has been repairing water damage under the copper roof on a pavilion of this house advised that a raccoon and her newborn cub were at the center of the work site, nestled snugly in the newly deployed insulation (cleverly adapted to the requirements of maternity). We all traipsed up the steps to take a view, and only a heart of stone would not have been touched by the sight: Herbert, it emerged, was Henrietta, and her cub was too little to walk or open its eyes, and its mother kept one paw on it at all times, stroking reassuringly. Once again, severe options were out of the question, and Google gave us a crash course on what to expect. As in the affair with the kittens, the local animal-rescue people were utterly hopeless. A year ago, they advised us to starve the kittens to death in the pipe; now, they told us that a mother and her cub could not be moved and there was nothing for it but to concede to the squatters and turn the work site into a veterinary maternity ward for up to eight weeks.

More ingenious heads, especially Henrietta’s, prevailed. As the housekeeper, the felines’ friend, arrived, with a cage trap in one hand and the familiar thick (dental-resistant) gloves in the other, Henrietta conducted an exploration prompted by the workmen’s use of the microwave. The foreman gently removed the cub to a warm, grassy place within an adjacent walled garden. This was the moment of truth, as there is apparently some chance of a mother raccoon’s abandoning a cub who has been handled at all at a young age by a human. But Henrietta, walking with authority despite her youth and fatigue after what must have been a very enervating act of birth, appeared and was seen by my wife scampering at speed with her cub in her mouth to the comparatively under-populated orchard. It too is fenced, as this entire property is zoned into areas so we can rotate the dogs and gardeners around without the dogs’ chasing the gardeners up the trees and forcing them to call for help with their cellphones. There are also the foibles of neighbors to be considered, as some of them are hostile to dogs and manifest this in unseemly ways designed, successfully, to rouse these essentially friendly if protective dogs to simulate the Hound of the Baskervilles and other legendarily terrifying canines. So other fenced areas can provide buffer zones, cordons sanitaires, with neighbors. Henrietta puzzled the system out with great acuity, and she moves between zones with her little passenger; she sometimes returns, when the coast is clear, to the two warmer places, in the roof and on the balcony, that, by her talents as an explorer, she discovered for herself. There have now been enough sightings for me tentatively to claim victory in this little drama for the party of life.

I cannot claim that the point to this mundane story is obvious, yet it all seems reassuring to me — reassuring because everyone, including the workmen, had the same instinct that we must help young life, even though raccoons are at times notoriously irritating animals. And reassuring also because after such a severe winter, the rites of spring have begun, and however challenged and apparently stifled, life always has what it must to go on. Despite the banality of the thought, we have all found it uplifting to see this small confirmation that despite every natural and human challenge and unkindness, life has waged a battle that it has never lost. I should probably apologize for this platitudinous little yarn, but I will not — I have reviewed what other columnists and bloggers have written in the last few days on the more frequent current political and economic personalities and subjects, and Henrietta and her cub are more interesting and more admirable. We would rather have them sheltering in or near our house than almost any contemporary political leader I can think of.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].

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