In the 40+ years that I’ve been a serious and sometimes professional photographer I’ve had the opportunity to photograph many kinds of wildlife and on some occasions have found myself in some tight scrapes. I’ve had a captive cougar lick the side of my neck and face while I tried my best to avoid soiling myself. I’ve found myself sliding down a talus slope on my back while holding a 500mm lens above me while photographing mountain goats. I’ve watched the sun come up while I was concealed in a clump of fallen trees in the middle of a meadow, surrounded by a herd of elk, and found myself in between the herd bull and some young bulls he wanted to fight. I’ve been 50 feet away from a grizzly with cubs, secure in the knowledge that I was only 1 of about 100 photographers and even if the bear picked me out of the group I could probably outrun at least one of my companions. And while some of these things got my adrenaline going I was never really fearful….until this week. And the scary critter was a tiny little raccoon. Go figure.
I had a business trip to New Orleans and since I’ve wanted to photograph some cypress swamps I flew in a little early so I could have time to check out the local swamps. I checked into my hotel and headed out to the Jean Laffite National Historic Preserve about 30 minutes south of New Orleans. I started out on the Bayou Coquille trail and for the most part had it to myself. There were a few other cars parked at the trailhead but not many. I sort of ambled my way along the 3/4 mile trail, taking time to photograph some neat swampy looking things including a small gator that I nearly stepped on while composing a shot of some ferns.
Eventually I made my way to a footbridge across the Bayou and was standing in the middle of the bridge composing images when I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. I knew gators were probably not too great at climbing steps so I wasn’t worried about that. Turning my head slowly I saw it was a raccoon. Cool! I figured it would make a great image so I grabbed one shot with the wide angle then started fumbling to get the tele zoom on the camera while keeping my eye on him in case he tried to sneak away. Before I was able to do that, the critter started limping toward me, holding up an injured front paw. Then I noticed how skinny it was. Those factors, coupled with a little knowledge I have of how raccoons are supposed to behave sent a chill down my back. Raccoons aren’t supposed to come towards humans. They are nocturnal creatures and tend to avoid human contact. And this guy was coming towards me! The first thought that came to mind was “Rabid.” Coons are susceptible to rabies and this critter was acting strange.
So here I am, hundreds of miles from home, nobody knows where I am, and I’m being approached by a supposedly wild animal. My pulse started racing and I got that empty feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach. I did the only logical thing I could think of…I backed away keeping my eyes on the critter till I got around a bend in the trail then I turned around and sprinted away. A hundred yards or so down the trail I stopped and watched but the raccoon never came down the trail after me. Still, all the way out of the swamp I keep checking my back trail.
Ultimately, I don’t know if the coon was rabid. It was in a National Park setting so it could have merely been habituated to humans and thought I might be able to help. I’ll never know if it was just my imagination or if the thing was truly sick. But it sure made me cower like a scared little girl. And I’m not one bit ashamed.