I love most animals—my Lab Alex and my Border Collie Sid are at the top of the list. There are a few animals that just sort of creep me out (snakes for example), even fewer that I don’t like (parrots for example), but there’s only one kind of animal that I can honestly say I hate. And that’s a raccoon. We have a saying around Whiskey Creek, which is what we call our ten acre plot of ground up here in the Gold Country)—the only good coon’s a dead coon. Of course, I’ve never actually killed one, but that’s not for lack of trying.
In 1991 I spent the entire summer building a waterfall and pond in my back yard at our home in the East San Jose foothills. Water came tumbling down the hillside, collecting in four little pools along the way, and then finally splashed into a large, irregularly shaped pond. Once the stream, waterfall and pond were completed, I spent the remainder of the summer landscaping the area with lush, tropical plants…tree ferns, rubber plants, philodendra, palms.
It was beautiful. So much so, in fact, that Lynn and I decided that at summer’s end we’d throw a big party to sort of christen the new back yard and its spectacular water works. My wife suggested that we buy a few gold fish to put in the pond, but I had an even better idea. “Let’s ask that everyone who comes to the party bring a live fish to put into the pond,” I said, “it’ll be fun.”
Over one hundred people came to our Picking Party-Pond Dedication-BBQ, a good half of them bluegrass pickers. What a glorious day of music and food and friends. And we netted a BUNCH OF fish, and all but one was alive. There were minnows, big gold fish, little gold fish, bottom feeders, koi….you name it, somebody brought one or two. The morning after the bash I went out and did a head count—sixty-eight in all. And they seemed right at home.
The next week Lynn bought a book on the care and feeding of pond fish, we bought just the right kind of food for our new pets, I bought a new water filter and kept the pond clean and the sixty-eight fish thrived. We even began naming some of the bigger ones. One of the koi was named Sal because he was exactly the color of a leaf of Romaine lettuce. My wife named one of the little catfish Doc after Doc Watson. And of course her favorite goldfish, Whitey, whom she’d had for years and kept in a goldfish bowl, got to join his new fish friends.
As summer faded into fall and then fall into winter, the fish seemed happy and healthy. Every now and then I’d try counting them, just to make sure they were all okay, all still present and accounted for. We were even beginning to think that maybe in the spring we’d hear the patter of little fin steps in the pond.
And then one morning--it was the 17th of February 1992--Lynn went out to feed the fish and a moment latter I heard a scream. “What’s wrong,” I yelled, running out to the pond. Lynn just stood there shaking her head. All of the water lilies that had floated in the pond were strewn on the ground. Little fish skeletons littered the ground and floated in the water. On the red brick patio bordering the pond, there was a clutter of little footprints. Actually, they looked more like little handprints. Raccoons.
We frantically checked to see if any fish were left alive. There were thirteen swimming at the bottom, and they included Whitey, Doc and Sal. I fetched a washtub and, using a smaller bucket bailed enough pond water to fill the tub two-thirds full. Then Lynn carefully caught each of the survivors with a nylon net and placed them in the tub. Together we carried the tub into the garage and pulled the door closed tight. I was flying out of town the next day and would be gone three days. Figuring out what would have to be done about the fish would have to wait till the weekend. They’d be okay in the shop for a few days.
One of the first things I did when I returned home Friday evening was to go out and check the fish. All thirteen were right where I’d left them, swimming around. (I noticed they were as close to the bottom as possible.) That night Lynn and I agreed on a strategy, at least to get us through the winter months. I’d go out the next morning and buy some chicken wire, stretch it over a wooden frame and we’d figure out a way to secure it over the pond. Then, in the spring, we’d come up with a more permanent, more esthetic solution.
The next morning as I was leaving for Orchard Supply Hardware, I glanced over at the garage on my way to the driveway and noticed that the door was slightly ajar. I rushed over, pulled open the door and there on the concrete floor I saw a familiar scene….little pieces of fish, mostly heads and skeletons and, of course, little muddy hand prints. I looked in the tub hoping against hope to see Doc and Sal, and Whitey the goldfish. There were only more lifeless fish parts.
Up until that Saturday morning in February of ’92 I guess I never really had any feelings about raccoons, one way or another. I mean, I’d owned a Davey Crockett hat when I was eight, I’d seen families of raccoons occasionally while camping and I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware that they could be pests. Then, when we’d discovered what they had done to the fish in the pond, I was perfectly clear on their peskiness. But now, standing in the garage, looking down on what was left of the last 13 fish, the survivors, things had changed. They were no longer pests, they were enemies, and I hated them. It was as if those fish had trusted me with their lives, had known they wouldn’t have a chance in the tub, but also had known I would keep them safe. I’d let them down. The night before I hadn’t closed the garage door quite shut. I couldn’t do anything about the 68 fish, about Doc and Sal and Whitey, but I could, and would, do something about the raccoons.
Initially I hadn’t planned on killing them. I would rent a live-catch trap (a wire cage sort of affair with a triggering mechanism and a door that sprang shut), bait it and, one by one, I’d catch the coons and haul them far, far away from my neighborhood out into the country—they deserved worse, but I was not a vengeful man…..not at that point. So, instead of going to Orchard Supply to buy chicken wire that morning, I went to Hecker’s Feed and Farm Supply on Alum Rock Avenue. An old wood frame structure wedged between Pep Boys and Jeanne’s Quick Cuts and Tanning Salon, Hecker’s seemed out of place there on Alum Rock. It was from another time, when people changed their own oil and got honest tans doing honest work in the sun.
“You say you want to rent a trap, not buy one, and you got yourself a whole family ‘a coons,” old Mrs. Hecker asked from behind the counter.
“Okay, but this could end up costin’ you a lot more money than just buyin’ a trap.”
“Why’s that,” I asked impatiently.
“Coons is smart,” she said squinting her eyes, “they’s a lot smarter than you might give ‘em credit for. It’s gonna take a while to catch just one, and sounds like you got yourself four, maybe five. Gonna take a while to catch that many coons.”
“So how much to buy a trap?” I asked steeling myself for the bad news.
The old woman looked me over, still squinting. “Sixty-five. But it’s a good one. You get a coon in there and he ain’t gonna get out.”
“So you think this’ll do the trick, huh?” I asked, wanting her to convince me to spend the sixty-five bucks.
“No sir,” she said without hesitation, “no, I don’t think it’ll do the trick one bit. I think if you buy this cage and take it home and put some bait in it, and keep removing the old, stale bait and putting fresh bait in, night after night, in a couple a weeks you’ll get tired of having to tend to it and you’ll lose interest and that’ll be that. That’s what I think.”
I took out my Visa card and handed it to her.
“Well,” I said, “you’re wrong about that. I’ve got a score to settle with these raccoons.” The old woman chuckled at that.
Mrs. Hecker of Hecker Feed and Farm Supplies was dead wrong. It took well over three weeks before I gave up. Like the ultimately doomed slot machine player, my interest was kept alive for a while because a few times the bait had actually been removed without setting off the trigger. And once the bait was gone and the spring-loaded door was shut….mysteriously with no raccoon inside. It was like getting nibbles but never quite hooking the fish. So, less than a month after the terrible “seafood buffet” as we’d come to call it, the live-catch trap was stowed in the garage rafters. I’d had enough.
But it turned out the raccoons hadn’t. In the five or six years that Lynn and I had lived in our hillside home on Chula Vista, we’d never even seen a raccoon, despite the fact that we lived less than half a mile from a sprawling and quite wild county park of several hundred acres. But all that changed in February of 1992. It’s like we’d suddenly been discovered by the locals. It took several months after our September fish party for our backyard to become noticed, but once it had, it became a preferred destination for the raccoon population. They would come in groups of two or three, usually late at night, looking for food and water and who knows what else. Lynn fed our three cats out on the deck, so the dried cat food became a target. When we caught on to that and moved the cat bowls into the laundry room where we fed our two dogs, the coons started coming into the house through the doggie door, the dog food proving to be a bonus they hadn’t counted on. Sure, we began closing the doggie door at night but, forget one night, and the raccoons would be back in. Our dogs, who slept upstairs with us, would occasionally hear the intruders and make a racket, but all that did was interrupt our sleep. By the time I got downstairs, they’d be gone. And what if they hadn’t? What was I going to do with a cornered raccoon? These animals, I was learning, have quite a nasty reputation.
The coons were a nuisance to be sure, and a couple of times I considered getting the trap down from the rafters, but, as my departed mother used to say, “folks can get used to anything.” Which is what happened. And besides, there were periods of several months at a time when we wouldn’t see a single raccoon. But then, in the spring of 1996, something happened that shattered the uneasy cold war between the humans and the coons. In the early morning hours, Alex, our blond lab, had gone downstairs, out the doggie door and into the back yard to empty his bladder and had inadvertently come upon a big nasty male raccoon. Without even realizing it, much less trying, Al had cornered the animal and instinctively the two went at it. They made a terrible commotion and I went tearing downstairs and out the door just in time to see the coon skulking away. Alex stood in the shadows and seemed okay, but when I called him over to me, I saw he was bleeding from his stomach and his neck. And I that the coon had left a trail of blood. It was time for Plan B.
Surprisingly, old Mrs. Hecker remembered me when I stopped into Hecker’s Feed and Farm Supply on the way home from work the next day.
“A box of 22 shorts,” I said putting a ten-dollar bill on the counter.
“Still got yer coon problem, eh?” She squinted at me.
I nodded but didn’t speak. I resented just a bit that Mrs. Hecker had been so right about the trap three years before.
“Ever shot a coon before,” she asked as she rang up the box of bullets.
“They die hard, those coons….awful hard. And they’s mean when they’re cornered and meaner still when they’re hurtin’. You got a good, reliable rifle?”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve got a rifle.” The truth is, I didn’t really know anything about the ancient twenty-two I’d kept stored up in the rafters of the garage since my dad had died ten years earlier and left it to me. (Actually, I had a second gun, a snub nose that my Uncle Red had given me, but there was no way I was going to use that one. It creeped me out.)
“You’d best take care, young fella,” Mrs. Hecker cautioned. “You’d best take that gun of yours out and fire it off some. Git to know it…..git to know it good ‘a ‘nuff so as when you shoot the coon, you shoot ‘em dead.”
“Give me two boxes of shorts instead of one,” I said.
“Did ya say longs?” the old woman asked. Longs were, of course, longer, contained more gun powder and hence were more powerful.
“Yes,” I said, “longs.”
It turned out the twenty-two worked just fine. I took it to a firing range and squeezed off a whole box full of rounds. And it turned out, too, that I wasn’t a half bad marksman….mid-way through the session, I actually started hitting the cardboard target, and even placed a few slugs within the outer concentric circles. No, I didn’t cotton to guns but, dammit, forced to use one, I now knew I could.
It’s difficult to convey the totality of my wife’s objection to Plan B. It was vehement, it was haranguing, it was pretty much non-stop for the better part of a week. And then Lynn just gave up. We’d been together long enough for her to know when it was just no use. But she was able to extract a promise from me—I would not kill anything, or try to kill anything, in her presence. This meant that any raccoon stalking would have to take place after Lynn went upstairs to bed, which was actually okay since the coons didn’t much come around till we’d retired anyway. The set up was pretty much perfect for coon hunting. I sat in the family room, in an overstuffed chair, my rifle at my side, facing the open double French doors that entered out onto the patio. I made sure a nice, big metal bowl of fresh cat food sat on the deck….it wasn’t more than ten feet away from me. I would aim for the head and dispatch the animal with a single shot. Two if need be.
The first night I sat for two hours there in the dark and saw no raccoons. The second night, still no sightings. The third night I fell asleep just fifteen minutes into my vigil, and when I woke up an hour later, some of the cat food was gone. But who ate it? Coon or cat? It was a week before I finally saw my first raccoon. I’d dozed off, and when I awoke, there it was, on the counter nibbling the cat food. I reached for the rifle but before my fingers even touched the gun, the animal had disappeared into the night. ‘Coons is smart,’ Mrs. Hecker had said, ‘they’s a long sight smarter than you might give ‘em credit for.’ Right again.
I was considerably more tenacious with Plan B than I had with Plan A. By mid-summer, I’d had maybe ten coon sightings and, of them, only two resulted in shots being fired. In both cases I’d fired at retreating raccoons—and in both cases I’d missed. In July we had a heat spell, with five days of one hundred plus temperatures. One night I sat up for three hours waiting for a raccoon to come. It was so hot I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Finally I gave up and went to bed but the moment my head hit the pillow, I remembered I’d left the twenty-two leaning against the couch in the family room….wouldn’t do for Lynn to find it there the next morning. I went back downstairs to stow the rifle, picked it up and discovered I’d also forgotten to close the French doors. As I stepped toward the sliding doors, there before me on the patio, not four feet away, was a huge raccoon sitting on the brick floor daintily nibbling a bit of cat food. He sat frozen, caught in the darkness. I don’t know who was more surprised. My heart thumped as I drew the cold steel of the twenty-two up to my cheek. In an instant I took aim and squeezed the trigger at nearly point blank range. Click. Not bang. Click. Mis-fire.
The raccoon looked up, directly into my eyes. It just stared, and I stared back for what seemed like a long time. And then very slowly, it stood up, turned and walked away. The coon didn’t run. It walked.
The next morning I emptied the twenty-two rifle of its bullets, wrapped it up in an old flannel sheet and placed it up in the garage rafters, next to the live-catch trap. While not a superstitious man, I’m a firm believer in fate, and, for me, the misfiring of that rifle at point blank range was no chance occurrence. Lynn was delighted. She kept the dogs in at night. She made sure the doggie door was closed each night. We lived with the raccoons.
In 1999 I hired a young Vietnamese man named Charles Doan as a designer and web applications developer. I remember so well his first interview. I liked him right off but I was concerned about whether he’d stay with our group or just use the position as a stepping-stone—we were in the midst of the dot-com explosion.
“One final question, Charles. Why do you want this job? Why would you choose to work for a public agency with so many better paying positions out there?”
“Chiclets,” he said with a mischievous grin.
“Chiclets?” I was certain I hadn’t heard him correctly.
“You see, Mr. Cornish,” he began slowly, “when I was a little boy in Vietnam I spent much time with American GI’s. They liked me and figure I bring them good luck, and some times they would take me out with them on patrol. As a little boy I remember so many times I watch them eat their field rations. And when they finish, they always find a little white plastic-wrapped Chicklet, you know, a piece of gum, at the bottom of their ration pack. That just impressed me so, so much. Their government took good care of them, feed them, and even made sure that at end of meal, they could chew a piece of gum. I say to myself, one day I will work for that government. That has been my dream. That is why I am here.”
I hired Charles on the spot, and in the months and years that followed, I was thankful I did. He and I became instant friends. Most days we took our lunches together. We would sit and swap stories and philosophize and generally laugh a lot. Charles was a bit of a player. He was not a young, innocent naïve Vietnamese immigrant…he knew his way around, could scam if he needed to, but he never scammed me, nor I him. Charles Doan knew San Jose’s Southeast Asian community well. He knew the side visible to ‘whites’, as he called us, but he also knew the underbelly. He often bragged that he could find anything on the black market. “You tell me what you need, boss, I get it for you. Half price.”
One day Charles and I sat in one of our favorite café’s in “Little Saigon” having grilled lemon grass chicken and jasmine rice.
“You know the tropical fish store next door,” my friend said, “it belong to my friend’s uncle. Many interesting fish in friend’s uncle’s store….many legal, some not so legal.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“I mean this guy, Tran, he sell fish in there that are not suppose to be sold. You know? Forbidden by law. Fish and Game Department forbidden.”
“Like some kind shark. Poison octopus. Stinger ray. Piranha from South America. You know about piranha, boss? They so ferocious, most ferocious of all fish….of all animals. I read that.”
That afternoon Charles sent me an e-mail with a link to a web site about South American piranhas. “Friend’s uncle sell this kind,” the e-mail said. I clicked on the link…..
“Piranhas can be such effective eating machines because they have numerous upper and lower teeth that are short, triangular, and sharp. The teeth interlock and the jaws are extremely powerful, allowing these fish to chew continuously and to remove flesh in clean bites. The presence of blood is generally thought to be a stimulant to a feeding frenzy of flesh-eating piranhas. However, there is ample evidence to indicate that these fish are triggered into attacking behavior by frenzied and panic-like activity of victims.”
I replied to Charles’ e-mail—“And you say your friend’s uncle can get these fish?”
A moment later, his response—“Yes, boss.”
And it was there, sitting in front of my computer, alone in the quiet of my office, that Plan C was born.
There was much, much more work that would go into implementing the third and final plan. The pond built several years before was totally inadequate for piranhas. Through Internet research I came up with a design that both met the living requirements of the fish and my and Lynn’s own esthetic requirements. I would build a large, redwood tank up against the thick concrete retaining wall at the foot of the hill in our back yard. Like the original pond, the tank would be the recipient of perpetually falling fresh water from a stone waterfall. But unlike the pond, the tank would have straight lines for better underwater maneuverability, and it would be deep, affording the fish a quick get away if need be. It took me two months and one thousand dollars to build the new tank-pond-waterfall. My friend Charles helped. Lynn was ambivalent about the new project. She didn’t understand why we needed a second pond, but at least I’d let go of the “raccoon thing”.
When the construction was finally complete and Charles and I filled the tank up with water and turned on the pump to activate the waterfall, it was a thing of beauty. Now there was just one more detail before bringing home our new pets.
“Hello,” Mrs. Hecker said absentmindedly looking up from her feed catalogue. “Oh, it’s you. The fella with the coon problem. Still got yer problem?” The old woman squinted at me, as though trying to read my mind, to anticipate what I was going to try next.
“Yes, mam, it’s me. But I don’t have a raccoon problem anymore. Getting along just fine with the raccoons. Like members of the family. But I do need to buy something raccoon-related. What kind of wire mesh do you have that a coon couldn’t possibly chew through.”?
“Wouldn’t trust chicken wire, not if ya got somethin’ valuable to protect from them nasty things. Whatcha trying to protect from the coons, Mr.?”
“Two expensive fish. A mated pair. Very rare.”
Old Mrs. Hecker studied me a while before asking, “Rare eh? What kinda fish you say they were?”
“I didn’t,” was my only reply.
Mrs. Hecker sent me home with a panel of heavy-gauge, one-by-one galvanized fencing. When I pulled up into the driveway, I off loaded the panel, threw a plastic bucket into the cab and went inside to call Charles at home. “We’re on for tomorrow,” I said. “Okay, boss, on for tomorrow. Bring bucket.”
After work the next day I followed Charles the two miles or so to the Asian Pacific Center, a huge shopping complex in the middle of Silicon Valley’s most densely populated Asian community. Charles parked a good fifty yards from the Tran’s Tropical Fish Store and motioned me to park next to his car. We’d already agreed that I would wait there in the truck. I handed him the white plastic bucket. Thomas was inside a long time and I began to wonder if something had gone wrong. Don’t be ridiculous, I thought to myself, it’s not like we’re robbing a bank. It’s not a federal offense, for God’s sake.
Finally I saw him walking across the parking lot towards our vehicles. I started to get out but he shook his head. Thomas put the bucket into his trunk and pulled out of the shopping complex parking lot with me following. He drove about a mile, turned onto a residential street and then we both rolled to a stop and parked.
“They’re beauties,” he smiled broadly, “the very best I’ve ever seen.”
“Charles, you’ve never seen a piranha in your life, what are you talking about?”
“Well, yes, that’s true. But they are beauties.”
I pulled out my wallet. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” he said. “My gift to you?”
“No, I can’t let you do that. Those things were expensive.”
“Can’t take your money, boss. Gave my word to Tran. Told him I would not sell piranhas. He very cautious about who he give unlawful fish to. Federal law, you know.”
“Yes, boss, federal.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment, “But I’ll repay you someday for this.”
“You bet you will, boss.” Charles smiled slyly.
I took the bucket and put it carefully onto the floor of the truck cab and then went back around to get in.
“One thing, Rick. Tran say, no matter what, do not put hands into bucket. You understand?”
“Yes,” I said, “I understand.”
That evening, after dinner, I told my wife about Plan C.
“You’ve lost your mind. You’ve finally lost your mind, haven’t you?”
I knew I had an ace in the hole—Lynn is nuts over animals. I’ve never seen an animal that my wife didn’t love. “Just come outside and have a look at them. They’re beautiful fish. I think you’ll like them.”
“Like them!” she cried. “These are flesh eating monsters we’re talking about, and you’re going to use them as a weapon to exact revenge on some poor dumb animals. Rick, you really have lost it this time.” I remember that for just a split second, just a nano-second, I actually considered what she said. Nah, I thought, this’ll work.
“Lynn, you really don’t get it, do you? I didn’t go to all of this trouble and expense just to sick a couple of fish on an unsuspecting varmint for cheap thrills. What kind of person do you think I am? The piranhas are for protection. They’ll keep the raccoons out of the yard, keep them away from our dog and our cats. And they’ll be our pets. Totally, ah, symbiotic, and nobody gets hurt. Just come out and meet them will you? Please.”
Lynn named the couple Lucy and Desi. She helped me get them into their new, watery home and then we lifted the wire mesh over the water and I fastened it down to the redwood planks.
“I don’t get this,” my wife said. “How are the piranhas going to ward off the raccoons with this wire over the tank?
“Lucy and Desi need to be trained first. I read how to do it on the Internet. You’ll see, in a couple weeks they’ll be regular “watch fish”.
On the way home from work the next evening, I stopped at our neighborhood butcher and bought a pound of flank steak. That night after dinner I cut off a little piece of the beef, tied one end to a three-foot string and went out to the patio. I lifted the wire mesh off the tank and peered in. No Lucy and Desi in sight, but I knew they were in there. I dropped the piece of meat into one end of the tank and then, using the string, I skimmed it quickly across the water to the other end, jerking as it went, simulating not too convincingly the ‘frenzied and panic-like activity of victims’. Then back to the other end of the tank, allowing the meat to sink no more than a couple of inches into the water. I did this for about ten minutes. No site of the piranhas.
“Okay kids,” I said, replacing the mesh over the tank and fastening it down, “no dinner for you two tonight.”
The web article I’d read said that it could take up to a week before the piranhas would go for the meat the first time. Lucy and Desi went for it on the fourth night. Whack! When I pulled the meat out of the water, I saw a perfectly shaped crescent cut out of it. One more pass and the whole piece of flank steak was gone. The idea was to teach the fish to go for food that moved through the water quickly and with a jerking movement. Feeding piranhas other fish wouldn’t work….they’d get into a hunting mentality that way. You wanted piranhas to strike instinctively and instantly, the moment they perceived movement.
I worked with Lucy and Desi for three weeks. By the end of the second week they were deadly quick and deadly accurate with their flank steak attacks. The string barely hit the water before the meat was gone. In fact, the string started getting shorter. Each night I made sure to place the mesh back over the tank. Didn’t want any marauding coons to come down into the yard and meet the kids before they were ready for visitors.
It was nine years, nearly to the day, that we’d had the pond party back in September of 1991. It was a warm, balmy evening. Lynn had headed upstairs to bed. I went out to check the tank. Lucy and Desi were no longer standoffish toward me. Instead of hiding in the shadows, they approached the surface of the water when they saw me walk up. Flank steak time!
“No, you two,” I said in a hushed voice, “you’ve gotten all you’ll get from me tonight. But, hey, who knows, there might just be a little snack for you later.” And with that I lifted off the wire mesh and set it aside. “Good night, Lucy. Good night Desi.”
By all indications, Plan C worked. The next morning there was clear evidence that multiple raccoons had paid a visit. As before, the water lilies had all been removed from the water and strewn on the ground. But instead of fish skeletons and muddy little raccoon prints on the brick patio, there were bloody little raccoon prints, maybe four sets, everywhere and they led off up onto the hillside. When Lucy and Desi saw me walk up, they surfaced looking for breakfast. Flank steak all around.
We lived in the house on Chula Vista for another year and a half. In that time we never saw a raccoon or found any evidence whatever that one had been in our yard. Several times I came close to stopping by Hecker Feed and Farm Supply, just to bring Mrs. Hecker a little closure, but I thought better of it. The fewer people who knew about Plan C, the better.
By: Rick Cornish
Copyright © 2002 California
Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
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