By Janet Conley
Twenty years ago, Wendy Millard read a newspaper article about Project Wildlife asking for volunteers to foster baby possums. So without any experience—and some encouragement from a friend—she made a decision that changed her life.
“I saw the baby possums in a box, and that’s all it took,” said Wendy.
Wendy and her husband, Dave, have been taking care of animals for Project Wildlife, a program of San Diego Humane Society, ever since. From possums, they added crows and ravens, squirrels, skunks and even a fox now and then to their list of houseguests.
But it’s their love for raccoons that keeps them going, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. They lead the Raccoon Team at Project Wildlife, which consists of 15-20 people including rescue, cleaning and home care volunteers.
The Millards often get calls early in the morning to rescue raccoons that have been hit by cars or attacked by animals and need help with rehabilitation. Other times, good Samaritans bring babies, abandoned by their mothers, into Project Wildlife. Either way, when the call comes in Wendy and Dave take over.
When a litter of raccoon cubs are fortunate enough to enter the Millard home, they spend the first several weeks in their guest bathroom, warmed by heating pads and soft blankets. Wendy bottle feeds each cub every four hours, around the clock, which often means 30 screaming babies, waiting their turn to eat. It’s a loud and time-consuming task, but one she adores.
From there, they move on to larger cages in their garage for three weeks, where they get bigger and stronger. The next step is outside to one of several custom designed exercise cages built by Dave on the Millard’s back patio. The enclosures include a lot of toys to keep them entertained as well as enhancements that help them learn to climb.
The final stop involves a drive out to the Millard’s property in Box Canyon. There, the now adolescent raccoons learn how to live in the wild. Dave has built special enclosures to keep them safe from coyotes and bobcats that live in the area. For three months they learn how to catch their own food, climb trees and survive without the help of their caretakers, before being released back into their natural habitat.
Donations from San Diego-based Specialty Produce supply the raccoons with grapes, avocados, carrots and other fruits and vegetables. They also enjoy a regular diet of chicken wings and eggs along with lots of dry dog food. Regular trips to Costco often include 15, 65-pound bags of kibble to keep their guests happy.
“Raccoons are very smart. They try to get away with whatever they can.” says Dave. “They’re complete characters who basically party all night!”
“Luckily we have wonderful neighbors,” adds Wendy.
Important things to keep in mind if you encounter a raccoon
- Do not feed raccoons. They are smart and will start to depend on the food that is offered to them.
- If you find a baby, please take it to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. As cute as they may be, they should never be treated like a pet.
- Secure your trash and feed pets indoors.
- Do not call a trapper to remove a nuisance raccoon. They will not determine the reason the raccoon is there, so more raccoons will inevitably continue to enter your property. Instead, figure out the source of their interest (food, water, shelter), remove that, and they should move on.
- Please do not use poison or rodenticides. They have a very harmful impact on your local ecosystem.
- Do some research on humane deterrents to keep raccoons away.
- Do not try to hand feed or pet a raccoon, as they can carry rabies.