I don’t recall who first came up with the idea, me or Mavis. But we both immediately saw this was the break we were waiting for. The whole pet-chinchilla thing wasn’t working out, so we needed something else. We had the cages and fixings to raise enough chinchillas to keep us comfortable, and they were breeding plenty fast enough, but they just weren’t selling the way we had expected. Seems people were thinking of them more as sources of fur than as pets, and neither of us was ready to let them go in that direction, so we had relatively few customers (at least those we were willing to sell to).
I remember us sitting in the kitchenette one morning, sipping coffee and musing about what to do next. “What we need is a corner on the market,” Mavis said, “something only we have, that you can’t get from anybody else.” I sniffed and nodded. “Yeah, but where are you going to find that,” I said, chewing at the crust of a piece of toast. “Anything that somebody else doesn’t have is usually that way for a reason – illegal or dangerous or something like that.” “Then we need to make our own,” Mavis said emphatically. She’s never short of energy or ideas, even if the ideas aren’t always exactly practical. “What, you mean like breed something new,” I asked, frowning. “What would that be?”
Somewhere over the next few days, the idea for the squaccoon was born. The fact that neither squirrels nor raccoons make ideal pets didn’t deter us. “People love squirrels,” Mavis said, “just look at them feeding them in the park. And people like raccoons as long as they’re not tipping over their trash cans. And often a cross-breed has much better characteristics than either parent – look at dogs compared to foxes and wolves.” Once Mavis made up her mind, there wasn’t much point in arguing since you were going to give in eventually. And seeing as I didn’t have any better ideas, I shrugged and went along. Mavis is definitely the idea-man in our operation. I’m more the right-hand left-hand get-‘er-done guy.
Since we were going to be dealing with squirrels and raccoons, we needed to fully enclose our chinchilla pen, which took me the better part of two days. Once that was done, we set out a bunch of Have-a-Heart traps, baited for squirrels in the day and raccoons at night. Mavis had decided we needed a male squirrel and a female raccoon; I couldn’t tell the sexes apart, so I just gave the ones I caught to her and she made the determination. Mavis is a wonder at animal handling, and after careful examination selected one male squirrel and one female raccoon, which we released into the enclosure. The squirrel immediately climbed the small tree inside the fencing and glared down from his branch, clucking in indignation. The raccoon scuttled under the little lean-to I had made from some cut branches and boards, and only came out to get food or scout for an escape through the wire fencing.
I was never completely clear on how Mavis did it – like I said, she’s a wonder with animals – but after a month or so the raccoon showed obvious signs of expecting. The squirrel and raccoon had never paid each other much mind up to that point, but seemed to particularly avoid being in the same area of the cage afterwards, with the squirrel glaring at Mavis whenever she would walk past the enclosure. And soon enough the day came when we had a litter of little pink squaccoons snuggling against their mother, who showed all the usual motherly affection toward her offspring. At first, there was nothing to indicate these were anything but ordinary baby raccoons, but once they started to grow and develop you could see that they were different. First off, their faces didn’t have quite such pointy noses, and their teeth were a little stubbier and shaped more for nut-eating. Then their tails started to fur out, long and striped but big and bushy. Their coat was a medium gray-brown. The baby squaccoons had the strong hind legs of their father, good for jumping and leaping, but front legs with the delicate and dexterous little hands of their mother. “They’re beautiful,” Mavis cooed, while we stood outside the enclosure watching them crawl around under their mother.
Soon they took to venturing out into the interior of the cage on their own, and quickly became adventurous and frisky. They chased each other around the enclosure, leaping halfway across it and scrambling up the small tree, to the irritation of the squirrel, who, despite being their father, didn’t seem to appreciate their company. This seemed to embolden rather than discourage them, highlighting a mischievous streak that all the young ones seemed to have inherited. They delighted in sneaking up behind the squirrel and gently but firmly pulling his tail to get him to squawk and jump and chase them back down the tree. The noise they made as he chased them was vaguely squirrel-like, but higher-pitched, like a chipmunk. Mavis and I got to feeling so bad for the harried squirrel that she had me catch him one day and release him outside the cage, at which point he high-tailed it into the trees and never looked back.
The raccoon was very affectionate toward her offspring, nursing them and then bringing them to the bowls of food we left out each day so they could learn to feed and forage on their own. The young were quick learners, and it wasn’t long before they were independent and pretty much taking care of themselves, at which point the raccoon started to ignore them and resumed her inspection of the cage edges for any possible escape. Seeing this, Mavis had me catch and release the raccoon, which also scurried into the woods behind the house, but not before turning once and looking at me as if to say, “What the heck was THAT about?”
It was shortly after the raccoon was set free that it happened. “Where are they!”, Mavis burst in one morning as I sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast and watching the TV morning news. “Where are who,” I asked, genuinely confused. “The squaccoons!”, she shouted, “They’re gone!” I jumped off the stool and ran out back with her, and sure enough, the enclosure was empty. “But, but, I don’t know…,” I stammered, “They were there last night when I checked on them!” I carefully opened the door to the enclosure and slipped inside, and peered under the raccoon’s lean-to and everywhere else. Not a squaccoon to be seen.
“Oh, for crap’s sake, I can’t believe this,” Mavis growled. “How the hell did they get out!” I could tell she thought it was me, somehow, that was responsible for this, but I held my ground. “I have no idea,” I told her, “I’m always double careful to check the latch on the cage whenever I go in or out.” She gave a big exasperated exhale, and shaking her head, muttered, “Well, whatever happened, they’re gone now, which means we have to start all over.” She stumped back into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. I stood there for a little while, looking around at the cage and door and surroundings to see if I could figure out what might have happened, but gave up after a bit and followed her inside.
Mavis was in a black mood for the next week or so, and I generally steered around her to give her some time to cool off. I was disappointed too, but this wasn’t the first setback we’d encountered in our many years together, and I knew that with time she’d perk back up and we’d start over with some new venture and get on with it. Then one morning she stormed into the kitchen with fresh annoyance. “What the hell happened to the bird feeder? And the trash cans? They’re a mess!” I looked out the side window, and sure enough, the bird feeder was on the ground and disassembled and empty, and the trash cans on their side with the lids off and the non-edible contents strewn all across the yard. “Well what the heck,” I said, puzzled, “It almost looks like a bear ripped into that feeder. And we haven’t had any trouble with the trash cans since I put those straps on to keep the raccoons out.” At that point I think we both stiffened a little bit with dread. “Oh crap, Mavis,” I muttered, “Do you think it’s them?” I rarely saw Mavis afraid, but her voice softened a bit as she said, “Oh…” Then she shook it off and was her usual self. “No, probably just a bear,” she said firmly, even though we both knew no bears had been sighted in this part of Long Island for as long as anybody could remember. “Let’s get it cleaned up.”
And it happened the next night. And the next. We moved the trash cans into the garage, so they were safe, but the bird feeder would be dismantled and emptied whenever we’d put food in it. Then the third afternoon I saw them. I was sipping a cup of tea, gazing out the side window, when two of the squaccoons crept to the base of the feeder and leapt up onto it, shaking it with their little hands until it fell to the ground, at which point they pried open the fill door and emptied the seed onto the ground and gobbled it up. “Mavis!”, I hissed, “Come here now!” She rushed into the kitchen and caught a glimpse of them just as they scurried back under the hedge. “Oh sweet mother of god,” she said. “It IS them. And they’re vandals.”
After picking up the feeder, we sat down at the kitchen table to try to hatch a plan as to how we might capture the critters. I figured our Have-a-Hearts might work, as the squaccoons were between the size of a squirrel and raccoon. And they seemed to have the dietary preferences of both, or rather, very little preference at all, so a bait of random food and seeds might work to get them inside. Just then we got a knock at the front door. It was Hugh from across the road. “Hey Mavis, Hank. I was wondering if I could borrow one of your Have-a-Hearts. I’m having a hell of a time with some raccoons tearing up my garbage.” I was about to say something when Mavis nudged my foot. “Sure, Hugh,” she said, “No problem. Hank, get Hugh one of the traps.”
I got him one from the garage and waved him on his way, then went back in to the kitchen. “Looks like we might have a problem, Mav,” I said, to which she replied firmly, “We don’t have a problem because we don’t know anything. Now let’s go out back and clean up the cage so it’s fit for chinchillas again.” I caught her drift, and we went out and cleared out anything even slightly squaccoon-related from the enclosure, and made it ready, or look ready, for a new batch of chinchillas. When we were back in the kitchen later that afternoon, I offered, “Well, with any luck, the things will be like mules and not be able to reproduce.” She just looked at me and said, “What things,” at which point I nodded and went back to reading the newspaper.
Soon the squaccoons were the talk of the neighborhood. “Biggest damn squirrels I’ve ever seen,” mused Leon Turner on his porch one evening as we stopped by on our nightly stroll. “Louise says they’re from down south, moving up into this area from global warming.” “Mmm, interesting,” Mavis nodded as we waved goodbye, “well let’s hope a good cold winter will chase them back!” And then it was beyond the neighborhood, with reports from several towns a few miles away, and then beyond that. It seemed that our hopes for sterility were just that. Talk spread of the new and mischievous creatures wreaking havoc on backyards and, even more worryingly, orchards, as the squaccoons apparently had a special fondness for apples and pears. While they were fast and secretive, a couple of unfortunates ended up on the sides of local roadways, and then into the hands of some local biologists, who were amazed to find that their DNA contained traces of both squirrel and raccoon genes and announced on the news that a new species had been discovered right here on Long Island. Given the genome, and the cross-species appearance, the scientists dubbed the new animals “coon squirrels”, which made Mavis roll her eyes and comment that the biologists clearly had no aptitude for marketing. So we began openly calling them squaccoons with the neighbors, and the term took hold, and that’s what they’re commonly called now all over these parts.
They’ve now been seen in both Connecticut and upstate, and seem just as comfortable in the woods as in the countryside and towns. What to do about the squaccoons rampaging orchards is still being sorted out, but new stronger tie-downs for trash cans have already become standard gear in our area, so we’re adapting. Where this will end, I don’t know, but where it began, well, Mavis says that will remain one of those mysteries of nature.