From house pet to zoo exhibit: odyssey of a Maryland raccoon

Wildlife: It's not what Onix is used to, but his $2,000 enclosure is meant to bring the species some public respect.

October 09, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

THURMONT - In the past, like any other landowner along the Blue Ridge Mountains, Richard Hahn has had his share of run-ins with wild raccoons. At times they have feasted on the waterfowl that reside at his Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, a 38-acre park often visited by a stroller brigade of moms and their children.

Today, though, the zoo expects to open a $2,000 exhibit that will showcase one particular run-of-the-mill raccoon who's typical in every way. Except that he's not.

This geriatric creature named Onix enjoyed a long and privileged life as an illicit guest in a rural Washington County rancher before he was caught and hauled off. In recent weeks, he has gained celebrity status among self-described raccoon rights activists and in Internet chat rooms where nature lovers have tried to reunite him with his longtime caregiver.

And now, after cooling his heels in an animal shelter awaiting his fate at the hands of bureaucrats and zookeepers, Onix has lucked into what might be an even cushier situation.

This is not where the story of Onix begins, and it might not be where it ends.

Onix was found more than 13 years ago by C.J. Giffin, a Keedysville woman who discovered the injured raccoon along the Potomac River near her home, shot with four bb's.

She took him home and nursed him back to health. But once he was better, she decided to keep him as a pet instead of returning him to the wild. Just like her dog and ferret, Onix got the run of the house - he sometimes slept on the couch or in the guest room, he ate cookies and drank a baby bottle of warm milk before bedtime, he often sat at the kitchen table during meals, he even used a litter box.

"They make a beautiful pet. They're even better than a dog," Giffin said. "For one thing, they don't bark. They don't tear everything up. They're loving. They're sensible. They're clean."

Foray to neighbor's

But it is illegal to keep wildlife such as raccoons as pets in Maryland.

One morning in July, Onix escaped from his outdoor shelter. He didn't go very far, just to the neighbor's porch, where he sat quietly for nearly an entire day. The neighbor, not knowing Onix belonged to Giffin, called animal control. When officials arrived, the details were sorted out and the raccoon was returned to his pen in Giffin's yard.

Eight days later, the Humane Society of Washington County, which acts as animal control, came back and impounded the animal. Giffin uses the words "stolen" and "abducted."

She hasn't seen him since.

"They won't even let us go see him," she said. "They say `health reasons.'"

Onix has been in isolation at the Humane Society for more than two months. Officials weren't sure what they would do with him. There wasn't a fear of rabies - Giffin said she took Onix for regular shots in nearby West Virginia, where raccoons are legal pets.

Euthanasia seemed to be the obvious answer. He was too old and habituated to domestic life to be set free.

But Paul Miller, the society's executive director, hoped for a better solution. He called Hahn at the wildlife preserve. The Department of Natural Resources signed on, agreeing to allow Hahn to take the animal.

"We don't want people going out and picking up wild animals thinking they can keep them as pets," said Karina Blizzard, a wildlife official with DNR. "It doesn't work out."

Hahn's zoo started out as a 2-acre snake farm in the 1930s. He and his wife bought the place in 1966, newlyweds with a baby and very little money in their pockets. The place grew from there.

People would offer all kinds of animals, and he began expanding to make room. Except for a short hiatus, the family has run the place ever since. His kids grew up in the house at the center of the property, where Hahn and his wife still live.

Onix will move into a neighborhood next to the alligators and not far from the mountain lions and prairie dogs that make up the North American collection. It's not a large zoo - just under 100,000 visitors come each year - but it has a collection of camels and monkeys and tigers and more.

Native charmer

While it might seem unusual to add a raccoon to the mix, Hahn thinks it's a perfectly logical addition. He said he wants people to see raccoons as something other than a nuisance rummaging through the trash or road kill at the side of the highway.

"When you go to Europe, overseas, the two most popular exhibits of North American animals are raccoons and prairie dogs," he said. "These are the most charismatic animals that people love to see."

Just because something is common doesn't mean it isn't engaging, he said. "People are extremely common animals, but we find them very interesting. We interact with them every day," he said. "Raccoons are very interesting. They're not really a cat or a dog but something in between."

He's going to the expense, Hahn says, because if you're going to do something, it should be done right: "You really cannot build an appropriate exhibit for a few hundred dollars anymore."

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