ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Consider this a warning.
Contrary to popular belief, raccoons are not just cuddly balls of love with adorable masked faces, dexterous paws and excellent food-washing skills.
Raccoons are evil. And everywhere, probably even in your backyard.
The truth shocks, doesn’t it? Hurts? I mean, LOOK AT THEIR FACES. How can such cuteness be cruel?
The Houghton sisters get that. They’ve known raccoon realness for years.
“No idea,” Donna Houghton sighs. “People have no idea how dangerous they are. They’re a small bear with a tail. They’re not pets. They’re probably in your neighborhood. And they are smarter than you.”
Cindy Houghton puts it even less subtly.
“They’re demon coons,” she said. “They’re monsters. They’ll tear you up.”
You don’t know this because you haven’t seen them. But to hear the Houghtons tell it, raccoons are more prevalent in the Albuquerque area – and other metro areas across New Mexico – than you might think. They’re nocturnal, stealthy.
They may very well be prowling about your backyards, your garages and sheds, your trash cans and your water sources, your chicken coops and koi ponds, plotting murder and mayhem without you ever spotting them – until you spot them.
Gwyneth Doland did. The writer and educator said she was awakened one night by the terrifying squawks of a dying chicken – “like a screaming child,” she says – coming from her backyard coop near 12th and Mountain NW. In the coop she found a fat raccoon busily eviscerating and decapitating the bird with the cold deftness of Jack the Ripper.
Nearly two years later, she still suffers from post-traumatic raccoon disorder.
“You cannot watch this episode of violence and not be changed by it,” she said. “It completely changed the way I looked at raccoons as cute little furry bandits to savage, murdering a**holes.”
Ross Perkal, a lawyer living in Nob Hill, said he was horrified one morning to find the tidy remains of four to six goldfish next to his pond.
“What I found was the skeletons, with head and tail intact and with their skeletons picked clean, with surgical precision, and left for me to mourn,” he said.
To deal with the beast – because Perkal has another pond with priceless 15-year-old koi, along with a Chihuahua and two cats – he called the Houghton sisters, known to their friends as reluctant, very reluctant raccoon-busters.
“We’re not in the business,” Donna insists. “But we have been known to help.”
The sisters, who live in the North Valley, say they learned about these rascally raccoons the hard way, because there is no other way to learn.
“And I have the scars to prove it,” Cindy said.
Years ago, she was handed a baby raccoon to raise. A second raccoon came later. The two raccoons became her teachers, her tormentors and the creatures she loved so much that when they died of old age she had them stuffed and mounted in a permanent pose of play in her living room.
Cindy owns the Vet-Co animal clinics, whose furry clients are typically dogs and cats. But over the years, she’s helped people deal with exotic or wild animals such as caymans, macaws, ostriches and tigers.
Raccoons are the critters concerning people most these days. In the past three years, the sisters estimate they have caught at least 53 raccoons, trapping them in large coyote cages, then releasing them into more hospitable climes.
They use a variety of bait, from fresh Twinkies and Cap’n Crunch – raccoons have a sweet tooth, they say – to chicken wings and cat food. But raccoons can be deviously clever, they say, and learn to avoid the floor plate that snaps shut the trap door.
Perkal, who is borrowing one of the sisters’ coyote traps to catch this year’s furry interloper, knows that.
“He arches his back in a U-shape so as to be able to reach across the trap plate with his arms and claws and yet not step on it with his back feet,” he said of the raccoon he has tried to trap for nearly two months now. “These are amazing animals.”
Raccoons are fairly common throughout Albuquerque, especially near the bosque and neighborhoods full of big trees, says Nick Pederson, a scientist with the city’s urban biology division of the Environmental Health Department.
“Most of the neighborhoods in the Heights probably have raccoons, but most of the reports that reach the city come from areas like Ridgecrest, Altura Park, the UNM area, Nob Hill, the city golf courses and near open spaces,” he said.
Pederson said he doesn’t think the city has seen an uptick in the urban raccoon population.
“It’s important to note that, for the most part, these animals live in the city,” he says. “This is not like bears searching for food during dry, poor production years in the mountains.”
If you’re interested in learning whether those things that go bump in the night in your neighborhood are raccoons, Cindy suggests setting up a motion-sensitive wildlife camera with flash outdoors.
Then stay inside, lock your doors. Don’t look. The cuteness might kill you – or at least your small pets and plants.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.