Death and the Raccoon

When he saw Pedro dangling from a noose, Jimmy Vonderglotz knew his three-pound pal was history.

Vonderglotz stood in his front yard and protested as a city animal control worker swung the little raccoon into his awaiting van. A vein popped in Vonderglotz's neck, and he considered movie-style heroics. "Do I take this guy out and get the raccoon?" he thought. But fear of jail constrained him -- especially since his neighbor, a raccoon-hating lawyer, was watching -- and he stood helpless, with a knot in his stomach, as Pedro was hauled away.

A tall, athletic financial advisor, Vonderglotz tells sadly how he spent months nursing Pedro and the rest of his family back to health from acute mange. Pedro, the worst case, became Vonderglotz's special project. The baby raccoon was hairless except for a few sprouts at the end of his tail. "He looked like a little Chihuahua with fleas," Vonderglotz remembers fondly.

By early July, the raccoon's fur had returned. But on July 10, when the animal-control worker came for Pedro, his triumph over mange and newfound cuteness counted for nothing. To the city, Pedro was ring-tailed vermin, a possible carrier of rabies and the subject of a neighbor's complaint. Vonderglotz's ad-hoc animal-rescue mission collided with the city's mandate to control four-footed vectors of disease. And Pedro never stood a chance.

Like all raccoons the city captures, Pedro was euthanized soon after he arrived at animal-control headquarters, just north of downtown.

Pedro's death sentence dates back to January 1995, when the Texas Department of Health issued a rabies quarantine after an outbreak of coyote rabies in South Texas and one of fox rabies in West Texas. The department hit list named five "high-risk carriers": foxes, coyotes, skunks, bats and raccoons.

Wildlife rehabilitators argue that the raccoon quarantine is particularly ridiculous since rabid raccoons haven't been found in this area for years. Dr. Beverlee Nix, a veterinarian with the state department of health, handles animal complaints for 16 counties, including Harris. She confirms that no rabid raccoons have been reported in the Gulf Coast Southeast region for the last ten years. The quarantine, she says, is "precautionary."

Under its terms, the city can do one of two things when it captures the listed animals: either euthanize them or release them to wildlife rehabilitators. Earl Travis, regional manager for the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care (BARC), says his department always kills them.

"There's a complete lack of cooperation between us and animal control," gripes Cindy Eckart, president of the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition. Her group has attempted to work with the city department to save some of the listed animals, including raccoons. But so far, she says, since the quarantine began, only one officer has delivered a family of raccoons.

Travis makes a persuasive case that his department doesn't have time to chauffeur the beasts around town. Each month, BARC logs about 3,200 calls from citizens complaining about everything from a snake on a ledge to a pit bull terrorizing a toddler. And the department has only 35 animal control officers to answer those calls.

Pedro was only one of some 30,000 animals brought to the city department every year. About 87 percent of the animals -- mostly cats and dogs -- are killed. In June, BARC put down 21 raccoons.

"We need to be as efficient as we can be," Travis says.
Vonderglotz's relationship with the raccoons began about a year before the quarantine. In March 1994, he found a family of raccoons under his newly purchased Montrose house, a bungalow on tree-lined Morse Street. In spring, he began leaving paper plates of food on his back steps. By Christmas, the raccoons visited regularly, pressing their faces to his dining-room windows to check for signs of life.

On Christmas Eve, when Vonderglotz and his girlfriend returned from midnight Mass, they found a red-beaded Mardi Gras necklace near the back doorstep. Vonderglotz considered the necklace a gift from the raccoons.

Giddy with the Christmas spirit, the couple named the two animals Mary and Joseph. They washed the muddy necklace and began a tradition of placing the beads at the top of their Christmas tree.

The bond was sealed; the humans were besotted.
A year later, Joseph was long gone but Mary continued to frequent Vonderglotz's back yard, stealing up to his back steps when the sun went down. This April, Mary brought her new brood. Vonderglotz remembers looking out his dining room window one night and eyeing a ratlike creature. On closer inspection, he realized that the critter was a hapless, hairless baby raccoon. He named it Pedro. His girlfriend named Pedro's three sisters: Icy (because she liked ice), Grumpy (because her disposition was sour) and Floppy (because of her ears).

The Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition told Vonderglotz how to care for the animals: entice them to eat marshmallows injected with ivermectin, a poison that kills the mites that cause mange. In mid-April, when Pedro finally took the bait, Vonderglotz rose from his lawn chair in the back yard, threw his fist into the night air and shouted, "Yes!"

He thought his little buddy's troubles were over.

Vonderglotz says he had an inkling that his neighbor, attorney Vivian Gatewood, wasn't keen on wildlife action. He says that she complained that the raccoons caused her cat to howl and wreaked small-scale havoc on her yard. Vonderglotz didn't think much of the complaints and recommended that she scare the animals away by scattering dog hair around her property. "Vivian's upset," he says, "because the raccoon knocked over a two-dollar clay pot from Kmart and pooped in her yard."

He explained to Gatewood that he would only care for the brood until August -- seven months is the recommended time to recover from mange -- and then he would release them on his family's farm in Brenham.

But after the animal-control officer arrived July 10, Vonderglotz says Gatewood admitted that she set a trap for puny Pedro, and when she caught him, called the city animal control department.

"She knew I was caring for the animals," Vonderglotz complains. "All she had to do was call me. I told her the city kills raccoons."

Gatewood refuses to comment on the matter. She says curtly, "I'd rather not get involved in that story my neighbor's cooked up."

Gatewood and Vonderglotz live side by side in nearly identical frame bungalows, one earth-toned beige and one sage green. The two urban professionals used to be friends. They watched each other's houses. They fed each other's cats. The two neighbors even exchanged keys.

But now they are exchanging fiery letters. Gatewood has even involved the police, claiming that a letter from Vonderglotz -- in which he wrote that she should be ashamed of sending Pedro to his death -- was threatening. (Her complaint doesn't seem to have amounted to much. When shown copies of Gatewood's letters, an officer behind the desk at the Montrose substation rolls her eyes. "Oh, Vivian Gatewood," she says. "Everyone rolls their eyes when we hear her name.")

Gatewood asked that Vonderglotz return her key. Vonderglotz asked for his key back, too, and then spent $200 changing his locks.

He says dramatically, "I feel betrayed by a neighbor and friend."

Vonderglotz is still haunted by the image of Pedro swinging from the noose. Since that day, Mary has disappeared, and Vonderglotz decided not to take any more chances. The weekend after he lost Pedro, he lured Icy, Grumpy and Floppy into traps baited with Butterfinger candy bars. He then drove them to his family's Brenham spread, the Coon Haven Hereford Ranch.

At dusk one Saturday evening in July, Vonderglotz released the three sisters near a lake on the ranch. As his video camera rolled, the raccoons scampered up a lush green tree and capered in its branches. Vonderglotz compares the moment to a scene from Born Free. On the videotape, you can hear him sniffle.

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