When Edelweiss resident Jackie Hansen set out on a leisurely walk along the “waterfall trail” behind Golf Edelweiss, on Aug. 3, the plan was to go for a walk, maybe pick some mushrooms for dinner, and then head back to a friend's dock on the river for a swim.
Those plans changed when she noticed a pair of raccoons climb down from a tree and “saunter” towards her, as she stopped to pick some Chanterelle mushrooms.
When Hansen, who was 23-weeks pregnant at the time, noticed the pair of raccoons, she said she immediately knew something was off. Not only was it strange for the animals to be approaching her group – which included her nine-year-old son Gabe, her 14-year-old goldendoodle Noah, and her friend Roxanne Chabidon, who had been visiting from Calgary – but also that the animals were out in broad daylight.
Hansen said she pointed out the pair of raccoons to the rest of the group and told them to begin shouting, while she began making noise with her bear bell — a product sold to wilderness enthusiasts intended to ward off approaching bears.
When that didn’t work, Hansen and her group decided to just leave and hope that the raccoons wouldn't follow. Their hope was short-lived.
"We started to pick up the pace a bit and shout a little bit more loudly, and throw sticks," Hansen said. However, the faster they moved, the faster the raccoons followed. "We picked up the pace and they started running, so we started sprinting."
The new plan was to make it to the top of the trail to the lake and make their escape into the water. Hansen told her son Gabe and Chabidon to start splashing and making noise, while she began texting her partner for assistance.
Once she had messaged for help with what they now feared might be rabid raccoons, Hansen grabbed a Nutri-Grain bar, unwrapped it, and threw it back on shore, believing that if the raccoons were just hungry, they would take it and leave them alone.
The raccoons did not go for the snack bar.
"They just kept coming closer and closer, so we made the decision to try and swim out to a small rocky island in the lake,” Hansen said, explaining that she had to ask Chabidon to aid her son, who began struggling during the swim. Hansen explained that she couldn’t do it herself, as she was already swimming with one hand above her head to keep the cellphone dry, and as previously mentioned, was 23-weeks pregnant.
“We got out to the island and the raccoons were swimming towards us, so I said, ‘Grab some rocks, we're gonna defend ourselves,’" Hansen explained.
When the raccoons did make it to the island, it was the goldendoodle who put himself between his family and the attacking raccoons.
"It was all claws and teeth," Hansen recalled. "As soon as we got Noah free, we started throwing rocks, but the smaller rocks basically did nothing."
By that point, Hansen said the adrenaline in her body was on overload, and her only other option was a larger rock.
"We had to stone one to death and the other we managed to just knock out, it was horrible."
A few minutes later, Hansen’s partner arrived, and was able to call 911 for a pair of ATVs to safely transport them back down the hill.
As harrowing as the experience was, Hansen emphasized that she was not a "damsel in distress," who was "freaking out" over a pair of raccoons.
“Roxanne and I have clocked significant hours in the bush, and I have been in warzones," said Hansen, who has done human rights work in conflict zones. "We know how to handle ourselves, and we did everything we were supposed to do."
"This was a terrifying experience and things could have gone very differently. Gabe could have drowned, we could have lost our dog, or I could have fallen and lost the baby," she explained.
Fortunately, neither Hansen, Chabidon, nor her son Gabe were bitten or scratched by the raccoons, but she was concerned about her dog Noah. She was surprised to learn that even without a test she wouldn’t have to worry about rabies.
When Hansen asked how the veterinary assistant at the Vétérinaire de la Gatineau in Chelsea could be so sure, she learned that the pair of raccoons had been released only days earlier.
Lack of options for wildlife rehabilitation
According to Hansen, she was informed by Anna Beaudet, a veterinary assistant at the Clinique Vétérinaire de la Gatineau in Chelsea, that the pair of raccoons had been recently released by a rescue and rehabilitation program for orphaned raccoons.
Beaudet told The Low Down in a written statement that staff members from the clinic had been offering their time outside of the clinic to foster raccoons.
“I wanted to make sure it is understood that the clinic is not running a rescue and rehabilitation program and acts only as general health advisors and critical care veterinarians for the animals,” Beaudet explained.
She added that their usual practice when orphaned raccoons reach maturity is to transfer them to a local refuge to be part of a gradual release program. Unfortunately, no refuges in the area were accepting new animals, leaving the group with the choice of introducing the pair into the wild themselves or euthanasia. These raccoons were the first pair released directly by the group.
The decision was made to take the raccoons, with permission from the property manager, onto private property in Edelweiss five-kilometres away from any residential area. They were shown a space for shelter, where some food was left for them, and where they had access to water, according to Beaudet.
“It seemed to be the perfect space for them. No one involved in the release was aware at the time that this area was heavily trafficked by hikers in the community,” Beaudet explained. “It is with great sadness that this experience did not work out how we had hoped, and that the community member involved had to go through such an unfortunate experience.”
Beaudet said the animals had never shown aggression toward people before and suspects they recognised another human as a provider of food and shelter. She added that their behaviour was also most likely more of excitement, which could easily be misinterpreted as aggression.
“We have been in contact with [Hansen] and her family and have been keeping her up to date on how the organization plans to go forward and make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again,” Beaudet added. “[This] is being taken very seriously. Clearer, more thorough plans will be in place before any more raccoons are released.”
Hansen said she was “heartbroken” when she learned that the raccoons had been rescued.
“We had no way of knowing they were rescues from their behaviour,” Hansen added. “I want to make sure that no other animals have such an undignified end, and that no other community members have a frightening and dangerous encounter."