Raccoon rehab

There was a pelican in the garage and a duck in the basement, but mostly the house and backyard are home to raccoons.

By Kris Foster
Hayley Hesseln

"I'm the raccoon lady, which might be one step below being a crazy cat lady," said Hayley Hesseln, associate professor in the U of S College of Agriculture and Bioresources. "They are so smart, I just really love those little guys."

Hesseln has been helping rehab animals for more than a decade, but it was only this past year that she began operating Bandit Ranch Rehab in the north end of Saskatoon, turning her house into a rescue facility for orphaned raccoons.

"I have a permit and keep everything up to code," said Hesseln, who recently applied for charitable status. "My neighbours are cool with it; there is no smell and not a lot of noise."

Which is surprising considering that 33 raccoons spent time at Bandit Ranch Rehab during this past spring and summer.

"Their population is really growing in the city and they are becoming more common. They are coming up along the river, and can adapt to any niche if they have water," she said.

As a result of the growing population, there are more orphaned babies who lost their moms through human-wildlife interactions, like being shot or hit by a vehicle, Hesseln explained.

"It's so sad to see little orphans. We aren't changing the natural order, just trying to mitigate human expansion of paving, drilling and building."

But no matter the reason that a raccoon arrives at Hesseln's house, the goal is to get them back into the wild. She starts by rehydrating the babies and bottle-feeding them a special formula for raccoons. She weans them off of the bottle and introduces fruit, dog food, chicken and fish. The next step is into the backyard pen and eventually to another rehab facility outside the city limits where raccoons will spend winter before being released back into the wild.

"Raccoons wild-up really well," said Hesseln, pointing to a few bruises on her arm to highlight that no matter how cute, raccoons are not pets.

"Even bottle-fed raccoons will go wild quickly. They develop a natural fear of humans. From October to April they are nocturnal so they don't see humans often even when in rehab, so that helps when they get back into the wild."

Hesseln said she sometimes gets criticized for helping what others see as pests or vermin, but that hasn't stopped her from spending $3,500 of her own money on food, vaccinations and other raccoon necessities over the past year.

"What makes me like them is what makes others hate them," she said with a laugh. "They are curious and smart. They have thumbs and can open locks and go through pockets. They play and fool around and you can tell when they're having a good time."

With most of her summer guests already moved into the larger, more wild-like winter rehab facility, Hesseln is planning for next year.

"I started a campaign to raise $6,000 for a new pen. We've already raised $4,000. Still looking for food donations and extra help. Raccoons are a lot of work. What would really help is for people to stop shooting the mothers."