Many of us have bonded with the wildlife around Highland Lake. Who doesn’t have a soft spot for the chipmunks angling for peanuts? The loons’ calls and the red squirrels’ scolding are an integral part of a summer on the lake. Some of us have gotten a little closer, though, blurring the line between wildlife and pets.
One teen-aged camper, once known as “Hamie” (he now prefers Andy), had an unusual encounter in the 1950’s. He took a couple of friends out fishing in one of Dad’s wooden boats, exploring some of the out of the way coves. They stopped at one isolated area and took out a picnic lunch to share. During the friendly banter and sandwiches, a raccoon walked out of the woods and up to the group. Raccoons can be pretty opportunistic, but this one seemed much friendlier than usual, climbing up on the camper’s lap. She eagerly accepted some of the picnic lunch and acted very much at ease with the kids. Andy wondered if she had been someone’s pet, noticing that she would tolerate food being taken away, unusual for many wild animals. Andy was smitten, and Judy the raccoon rode back in the boat with her new friend. For the rest of the few weeks that he was at camp, Andy and Judy were inseparable. She eagerly followed him everywhere and quickly became a beloved pet and a celebrity at Stone’s Camps. But as his parents packed at the end of their stay, Andy was crushed to learn that he could not take Judy home. No amount of protests would change their decision, and Andy had to let his dear Judy go back to the wild. He returned home and mourned the loss of his friend deeply. Even now, the sadness is palpable in the retelling. His bond with the animal was very special and unique.
My encounter was a little more comical. One of the perks of my childhood at the camps was the succession of kids that would come through yearly. I had friends who came with their families every summer, and when one left another came. One friend, Debbie T., was very savvy with wildlife and took a great interest in frogs. When Debbie came to camp, we spent days hiking, following the shoreline, hopping along the rocks like mountain goats and seeing what we could find in the shallows. We collected countless tadpoles, frogs, and toads. The frogs went into a bait pail full of water and we kept them for the day. We let them go when it was time for dinner. The next day we would go out and likely catch the same ones again. Debbie had discovered that the plastic sundae dishes from Dairy Queen could be quickly transformed into perfect portable terrariums. Simple take the base off, punch a hole in it, put some moss in and snap it over the wide end. We collected tiny toads and carried them around in our DQ containers. On the last day of her stay we collected an impressive bullfrog. She decided to gift me the frog and made me promise to take it home. I was reluctant, but she was insistent, packing the frog in a Hood’s milk container. I surreptitiously brought the frog home, desperately wondering how to make this work. Home was a small apartment attached to what used to be the Brookside Theater (now the Magic Lantern). Less than an hour into the adventure, the frog made the first move and leap out of the milk carton, lodging itself between the cabinets and refrigerator. All was lost in keeping things secret at this point. Mom spied the bullfrog loose in the kitchen as I lunged for him and missed. Debbie was the more expert frog catcher, evidenced by my failed attempts. However, when we caught them at the lake, we didn’t have to work around major appliances. Mom and I finally were able to tag team him and make a capture. Mom told me in no uncertain terms that we had to return the frog tomorrow. I told her of my promise to Debbie. She softened and said that the frog would be much happier in the lake, since that was his home. We just wouldn’t mention it to Debbie next year, so we don’t hurt her feelings. The relieved bullfrog glided away into the lake the next morning. I held my breath the next year, but she never asked about the frog.
Fittingly, Debbie T became a veterinarian, and Andy is very interested in dogs and birds, with many as pets. Andy shows one of his dogs and is involved with rescue greyhounds. The many contacts with Maine wildlife as kids likely helped develop their lifelong love of animals.
My parents tried to instill in me the belief that wild things belong in the wild and to respect their autonomy. Raccoons can blur the line with that on a regular basis, however, as any Mainer with a bird feeder or an unattended trash bin can attest. However upsetting or conflicted it was at the time, probably the better choice was to return the raccoon and frog to their natural home. One could argue that the raccoon was too habituated to humans, but it is impossible to know that for certain. Both Judy’s and the bullfrog’s progeny are likely still thriving around the lake. As it should be.
by Jenny Stone