It's been a while since I've found the chance to post any updates, and now I have almost too much that I want to say. But before I say too much, let me tell you about the raccoon.
Last Sunday morning, it was my turn to open the Zen Center. By "open," I mean literally that - be the first to show up in the morning, unlock the doors, light the candles and incense, lead the service and eventually give the dharma talk. I was running a few minutes late leaving my house that morning (typical), but decided to be at least a little efficient anyway and take the trash out with me as I left. The garbage bag was overflowing - it had been a while (at least a week).
Lifting the lid to the garbage bin, something caught my eye - something moving. Before dropping the trash in, I peered down and saw a small raccoon at the bottom. At first I thought it was dead, and that someone (the landscapers? the house cleaner?) had dropped it in there, but then I saw it turn its head to look up at me. It had the most helpless (and hopeless) look in its eyes. It just laid there on the bottom of the empty bin, making no attempt at self defense or escape - it apparently had been there for a while, as the reek of ammonia indicated that it was laying in its own waste. At least a week had passed since I last took the trash out, so it could conceivably have been in there that long. It was too weak to do anything, and now it was facing its most dreaded consequence of being trapped there - discovery by a human.
I didn't know what to do. Certainly dropping the trash on top of it was out of the question - its predicament was bad enough and nothing good would come of having my week's worth of garbage dropped on its head. It didn't seem advisable to try to pick the raccoon up, although it didn't seem rabid. And I was still late getting to the Zen Center. Not being able to reach a decision, I closed the lid with the raccoon still in the bin, put the trash bag to the side, and left for the zendo.
During the whole morning service, I kept thinking about the critter. How did it get in there? Why couldn't it get out? Was it sick? Injured? Or just unlucky? The day was getting warm, and it must have been stiflingly hot in the bin. And the ammonia would be displacing the oxygen within the confines of the bin. But between the morning service, my dharma talk, and locking up afterwards, it took me over four hours to get back.
The raccoon was still there. Someone at the zendo suggested that I call the County animal control, but the only listings I could find on line were for pet adoption agencies. There were listings for private pest control firms that advertised raccoon eradication among their services, but hiring someone to kill the creature didn't seem like the best possible solution. Besides, with all the money I've been spending on the unsellable condo, incurring more costs just because I had the good fortune of inadvertently trapping a raccoon wasn't very appealing.
So I decided to release it. It didn't seem rabid, and even if it didn't have much longer to live, I imagined that it would rather die in its own environment than trapped and scared in the bottom of a trash bin. I placed a bowl of water on the ground, wheeled the bin around and, holding the lid shut, turned it on its side. Once it was down on the ground, I let the lid fall open and quickly backed a good 10 yards away.
Nothing happened at first. But slowly, the raccoon got on its feet and started to walk unsteadily toward the exit. Seeing me watching, it froze for a minute but then decided to make its escape anyway. It was incredibly skinny - the skinniest raccoon I've ever seen. It looked almost cat-like in its slenderness. It walked out of the bin (for the first time in a week?), ignoring the bowl of water and tried to climb up the wall behind it. But as it was too weak to climb, it tried squeezing between between the wall and a fence and then under the fence, but even in its skinny state it couldn't fit.
It's only option was to overcome its fear and walk a few feet in my direction, cross about five feet of retaining wall, and then climb some stairs up to my back patio, which it did. Lumbering slowly, it made its way up the stairs. From inside my house, I was able to watch out the windows as it crossed the patio, and slowly climbed another set of steps to the tool shed in my back yard. Once there, it crawled under the shed, and that was the last I've seen of Rocky Raccoon.
From the way it walked, it was obviously very weak. Dehydrated and half starved, it apparently only wanted the safety of a secure and familiar spot. I like to think that it found some water and food, or that its raccoon family bought it some water and food, and that it is now back to full health. Of course, it's more likely that its now dead, but at least it didn't die in my garbage bin.
What got me about this episode was the poor animal's suffering. Trapped, scared, dehydrated and starving is no way to go, even in the animal kingdom. I realize that I was moved by its suffering by the coincidental fact that raccoons have faces and eyes that look expressive to humans, although they are probably no more or less emotionally developed than opossums, rats and other mammals their size. But rather than look at ourselves as sentimental, perhaps we should look at the raccoon's expressiveness as a teaching, instructing us to respect the sanctity of other sentient beings.