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Rita Sue & her Furry Crew

aka the ’coons in the ’hood
November 20, 2008

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Editor's note: today would have been my mother's 83rd birthday. Given her love of animals, this account is dedicated to her memory.

It was a pleasant surprise at the Fruitvale Radio Shack yesterday, when after waiting patiently fifteen minutes for a clerk to free-up and help me, he consulted with the manager who, in turn, walked back to their stockroom and returned with the product I had imagined but didn't know actually existed.

Roxie Raccoon's four kits have grown up and neither she nor they show up in our backyard anymore. But earlier this week, we received a new visitor whom we named Rita Sue who showed up with her new litter of four little raccoon kits. Like Roxie in the beginning last summer, Rita Sue was initially nervous around us, but her hunger allowed her to overcome her misgivings as Pat kept putting handfuls of kibbled cat food into the feed bowl on the bottom step of our back porch. Ever the prudent mother, she left her four kits at our pond to frolick while she munched down every handful of kibble we offered her. The night before last, the four kits came out from the irises around our pond, crossed the flagstone in the yard past the firepit, and approached the back step where mom was gorging herself. At the sight of us on the threshold of the back door, they about-faced and hurried back to the safety of the pond and its surrounding foliage.

From Roxie we had learned that Rita Sue would eventually encourage her kits to come and eat from the bowl once she was assured the humans were no threat and the food was freely available. For us, the problem was knowing when she and the kits would be there. Up until now, we had relied on the barking of a neighbor's dog behind our fence to alert us to the presence of the raccoons. But that involved a lot of scanning the dark backyard in the glow of the garden lights for any movement which, often as not, we failed to detect. We needed a better alert system.

Years ago back in Omaha my second ferret, Snowball, got into the habit of backing into the inside corner of my apartment's front entry to take a dump on the carpet. Can't say as I blamed him for preferring a soft carpet to a gritty litter box. A twenty-dollar trip to Radio Shack solved the problem when I returned home with a motion sensor and mounted it to the wall at an angle that bisected the corner. The sound of its beam being broken sent me running for the front door where I scooped up Snowball and placed him in the litter box. Within a week, the litter box was all he ever used.

We needed a similar solution with the raccoons. However, if the motion detector was self-contained, we might not hear the alert from the back porch steps while watching TV in the living room. Besides, the audio alarm would likely scare the raccoons away. If only there was a motion detector that radioed an alarm to a receiver in the house where we would hear it and the raccoons wouldn't. That was precisely what the Fruitvale Radio Shack manager handed me from his stockroom. A little pricey at $79, but you could hook up to four sensors to it even though it came with just one.

After a stop-off at Smart & Final to pick up some much needed groceries, I rushed home, opened the box, and started assembling the new gadget. Though never mentioned on the outside of the box, the instructions inside gave me pause with the following statement: The Reporter uses a Passive Infra-Red sensor to detect the heat of people and vehicles as they move past it, while allowing small animals to pass through undetected. It was small animals specifically that we wanted to detect! Fortunately I had kept the receipt just in case and proceeded with setting the two internal switches to high sensitivity and short range.

Turned out the sensor would ignore small animals if you placed it high enough to shoot over their bodies. I mounted the unit to the side of the house just beyond the bottom backporch step, eight inches above the concrete. Pat then called our three cats into the house for dinner and the alarm went off as desired as each of them broke the beam. We closed the back door and within ten minutes, the alarm sounded in the hallway where I had placed the receiver indicating that either Dorian or Blackie, the two neighborhood stray cats we leave a bowl of food for every morning and evening, had arrived for their dinner. After multiple alarms and visual checks, we realized both of them had showed up and were taking turns at the food bowl on the bottom porch step.

Dark descended on our back yard, the automatic garden lights came on, Dorian & Blackie left our yard for other dinner engagements, Pat refilled the porch-step food bowl, and I headed off to the living room to watch my daily BBC and NBC news programs. Into my second half-hour news program, the alarm went off and I rushed to the back porch to see Rita Sue's four kits playing at our pond. I opened the back door and there was Rita Sue eating the contents of the bowl on the bottom step. Pat grabbed the cat food bag from the cupboard and kept refilling the bowl with handfuls of kibble as Rita Sue emptied it. She now was coming within six inches of his outstretched hand. But a sound inaudible to us called her away to tend to her kits and within a minute or so, we heard the five of them climbing over our backyard fence and on to other nocturnal adventures.

Forty-five minutes later, the alarm sounded again. Rita Sue and her Furry Crew had returned. We opened the back door, Pat refilled the bowl on the bottom step, and Rita Sue went back to eating while the kits frolicked out back at the pond. After several minutes, she uttered a low sound we could barely hear and her four children walked around the pond, made their way through the iris jungle, and waddled across our flagstone yard to the back porch. Two of them ascended the bottom porch step and started eating from the bowl while mom backed away and let them at it. The other two, unable to overcome their fear of humans, doubled back to the pond. The little guys only stayed for a couple of minutes before rejoining mom and their other two siblings at the pond and disappearing over the fence into the night.

Half an hour later, the alarm went off again and when I opened the back door to see who was there, an adolescent possum scurried away into the night.

An hour later, just before Pat's bedtime, Rita Sue was back with the kits and Pat refilled the bowl one more time. This time we said goodnight to the nighttime raiders, closed the door, and turned off the motion alarm for the night. Best $79 I ever spent! Now that we've earned their trust, we'll try to get some pictures. Stay tuned!

Finally! A usable photo of the whole family! Only took 2 weeks to get it. In the interim, the kits have doubled in size.