In August 1956 my husband Charles and I moved our growing family from a mid-Los Angeles apartment to a hilly area in Eagle Rock, Calif. We both favored living in the hills rather than on flatlands of cement and blacktop.
Our new home on the rim of the San Gabriel Valley was in a wooded canyon which, thooough partially built up, still had a natural runoff stream during winter rains and much unimproved acreage with native flora and fauna. Wild trees, bushes, and other tangled vegetation were abundant. Although this small canyon was surrounded on three sides by heavily populated cities, wild animals shared our hills-coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, racoons, and birds of all kinds, including jays, ravens, woodpeckers, and thrushes.
For the most part, the wild animals kept to themselves, and we caught glimpses of them only occasionally. A single jay, quickly named Mr. Blue Jay by our two older daughters, was bold enough to perch in nearby trees and entertain our little girls with raucous cries.
Southern California weather generally is mild and pleasant, even during summer. During the three hottest months of July, August, and September, the daytime temperature usually ranges from 80 to 90 degrees. At certain periods, however, the heat will unexpectedly"set record"; then there will be extended periods of a week or more when the thermometer soars above 100 at the Los Angeles Civic Center and reaches a blazing 105 to 115 degrees for several days at a time in the outlying valleys.
It was during such a streak of hot weather that a remarkable incident accurred. On September 28 1963, at about 10:45P.M., we were sitting in the living room of our hillside home, watching television and trying to ignore the heat. The high that day had been 107 degrees, and the thermometer still hoverered around 100 degrees. The four days brfore had been nearly as hot, and our house, unlike the houses of some of our more affluent neighbors, had no air conditioning or swiming pool. We were tired of the heat and our nerves were wearing thin. Our daughters, who now had multiplied to four, were sound asleep.
Suddenly, over the din of canned laughter from a TV sitcom, we heard a scratching at our front door, which faced onto an acre of tangled wildwood west of our home. Thinking it was a neighbor's dog, we ignored the noise. The scratching persisted, and after a minute or two I oopened the door to see what was causing the sound.
To my astonishment I saw a large racoon standing less than two feet from me, gazing intently into my eyes. She showed no fear, only an air of caution as she beseeched me silently with her large brown eyes.I looked beyond her in the faint glow which our dim indoor lighting cast on our darkened porch
Several feet away I saw, positioned on the edge of the shallow steps which led to our driveway-and beyond that, to the wild acreage-three small racoons which could not have been more than a few months old. They were clustered on the broad stairs, poised as if ready to flee on a signal from the large racoon. There was an air of expectancy and urgancy about them-an attitude they seemed to have picked up from the large racoon, which apparently was their mother.
I called softly to charles to come and see what was on the porch. When he came to the door and peered out, his surprise matched mine. Together we gazed at the mother racoon. At least one foot high and two feet long,she was as big as a fair-sized dog. Never had we seen a racoonso close and so unafraid. We had seen a racoon so close and so unafraid. We had seen raccoons in our area, but they had always scampered off as if unwilling to hve anything to do with human beings.
The mother racoon looked steadily and intensely at us. Even in her urgent plea, she never lost her air of caution. She kept looking toward the three small babies and back at us.
Charlie and I both suddenly realized that the mother racoon was telling us that the intense heat of the past four days was affecting her babies adversely. We thought of food and water, espevially water; our streamed had been dry for months. Charlie filled a large pan of water and carefully placed it on the porch midway between the mother and her babies. The large raccoon just as carefully moved aside so that Charlie could go out the door.
The racoons stared silently at the water. Then the mother went over and sniffed at it. She returned immediately to her place near us; her babies did not go near the water. We decide it wasn't what the mother was requesting so urgently. Years later I relized that they probably could not tolerate the heavy chlorination for which Los Angeles County water is famous.
Charlie went to the refrigerator and, perhaps instinctively, brought out a large bowl of juicy green grapes which we had purchased that evening for our children to enjoy the next day. He placed a small clump of the grapes on the porch near the water. The mother drew near the grapes, nosed them carefully, then called to her babies with the sharp cry peculiar to racoons.
The babies hurried over and-as if by their mother's permission-hungrily gobbled down the grapes. The mother once more beseeched us; she was asking for more grapes. We provided large clumps of them and the babies swiftly consumed them. The mother did not eat even one grape. Apparently she was saving everything for her babies.
By this time Charlie and i had silently decided to let our own children witness this strange but charming spectacle. I went upstairs and gathered our own brood, four small girls aged eight th one-and-one-half years. I axacted from each a stern promise to be very quiet. Although normally noisy and playful, they stood as quiet as little mice at the door, watching the baby racoons gulp down clump after clump of juicy grapes, provided by their daddy, at the silent direction of a large mother racoon. The wonder in our small children's eyes was a marvel to behold-akin ti the marvel of the gratitude in the mother racoon's eyes.
While the babies were eating the grapes, the mpther stood a short distance away from us. When our children joined the group, she took uo a position nearer her babies. her attitude was that of a wary guard, alert although still trustful.
It appeared that the juicy fruit was alleviating both the racoon's hunger and thirst. When the grapes were completely consumed, we tryed laying out bits of cut up bananas, but the mother, after sniffing this offering, rejected it. She gathered her babies and, the little group turned and shuffled off into the darkness of the wildwoods.
The entire episode lasted about fifteen minutes, and was an unprecedented experiance for all of us-one that has never occurred since. The heat wave broke a couple of days later. On the 30th the high was a "mere" 99 degrees. our family felt better, not only for ourselves but also for the racoons.
Our children looked for them for days afterward, hoping they would return for another meal, but we never saw that particular family again. In years that fallowed, we often saw racoons wandering at night among the bushes and trees near home, and sometimes strolling boldly down our driveway. We learned they are nomadic and not inclined to stay in one place. Strangely, subsequent visiting racoons show no fear, at least of Charlie and me. They treat our place as their own property, but do not interact with us in any way.
We have always felt that the desperate circumstances of hunger and thirst the racoons must have endured that hot summer sparked the trust that allowed the mother to approach us and ask for help. But did the fact that we also had small "babies" have anything to do with her decision to scratch on our door that night? She might have chosen any of a dozen homes along that winding street, but we were the only family in our glen to have children so young.
This is something, of corse, that we will never know, but we feel privileged to know from our own experience that sometimes, under unusual circumstances, wild animals do communicate with human beings.