Author: Cornish, Rick

Plan C
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—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 pickers. What a glorious day of music and food and friends. And we netted 68 fish, and all but one was alive. There were minnows, big gold fish, little gold fish, bottom feeders, coi….you name it, somebody brought one or two. The morning after the bash I went out and looked at all our fish. They seemed right a home. It was lovely, just lovely.

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 68 fish thrived. We even began naming some of the bigger ones. One of the coi was named Sal because he was exactly the color of a leaf of Romaine lettuce. My wife named one of the little cat fish 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 fish friends.

Summer faded into fall and then fall to winter. Still the fish seemed happy. 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 fins 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 up. Then Lynn carefully caught each of the survivors with 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, 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 the two cois, 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, I was very much aware of my feelings toward raccoons. 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 completely. 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 was not a vengefull man…..not then. So, instead of going to OSH 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 Saloon, 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 buying 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 an ultimately doomed slot machine player, my interest was kept alive for a w
Posted:  2/6/2004

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