With heavy leather work gloves, I reached down to remove a lump of hay so that we could flip in a new bale for the sheep. The hay snarled at me.
I jumped back and met the eyes of a distressed racoon. A low growl, and it curled up against the metal gate.
The raccoon was ill. We first saw it two days earlier when two women brought their young children to see lambs. Held at bay by two barn cats and too weak to climb, this was another raccoon with distemper. We hoped that when we left, it would wander away.
However, later that day, it waddled over to where my husband was giving our bottle lamb its milk. This was not normal raccoon behaviour. We concluded it was starving and ill.
The next day, I saw no sign of it and hoped that the warmer temperatures had encouraged it to find a new home. Then, the next morning, a ball of hay snarled at me.
This was not our first encounter with a sick raccoon. In the summer, one followed my husband around the barn, between bales of hay, eventually chasing him away. I saw it among the weaned lambs, stumbling around, looking bloated. That one wandered over to the house of a neighbour who had a gun.
I have heard that distemper is affecting raccoons in our area. Everyone has stories about the creatures coming near them. Illness makes them loose their normal good sense. They get weak and bloated. When they get in with the animals we have responsibility for, we have to deal with them.
While we tell the stories of finding these raccoons, the story of what we did next is likely not told. It isn't a pleasant story. On the farm, there are stories like that, things that other farmers have had to deal with that town folk just never see. In a sermon, I can include stories of snakes in bales of hay or trying to get a soaking wet blind ewe back to the barn in a way that makes people laugh. I can find a point that justifies telling the story. But there are sad and difficult things I have had to address that I don't talk about much with folks who have not had to confront the same situation.
When I started this column, I expected to compare the farm with other work places, to talk about the things that are easily understood within a workplace that might shock someone who does not know that environment. That is still a question worth thinking about.
But this week in our local newspaper, there was a story of a woman getting bit by a raccoon. Illness has not yet been confirmed. We do know that police were able to mercifully, quickly end its life. After that, everyone will be even more wary of raccoons, even in town.
A few years ago when raccoon rabies was spreading quickly, bait with the rabies vaccine was dropped all around the woods in this area. The effort seemed to help slow the spread of that disease. Raccoons are a pest, but rabies is dangerous. This seemed a worthwhile effort to protect people and wildlife.
Given the prevalence of raccoon distemper, I worry that the local raccoon population will be devastated. Yes, I know that they are hard to dislodge when they make their home in your attic. Yes, they make a mess of a bag of garbage. No, I did not like grabbing one by accident even with my heavy mitts on. But they are part of the local clean up crew. As scavengers, they work alongside the vultures to clean up those small creatures our cars kill. I presume they have a place in the food chain as well, though I have heard conflicting opinions about whether coyotes will consume them.
I think we will notice if the raccoon population is devastated by disease. I am not sure we can do anything to help them. It is right to be wary of a wild creature acting strangely, but I hope we do not act just out of fear. Yes, raccoons have quite a funny gait when they run, and they have a face like a bandit, but they are creatures we share this environment with.
Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.