After spotting clusters of raccoons huddled in trees above the flooded Yolo Bypass after the recent heavy rains, Heather Jorgensen took to Facebook and tried to organize a rescue mission.
She contacted an animal welfare group, which agreed to try to snare the animals. But the California Department of Fish and Wildlife nixed the effort, arguing it would be dangerous to both the raccoons and their rescuers.
Raccoons, a wildlife specialist with the agency said, are perfectly adapted to their riparian habitat, and are doing what comes naturally to them.
“They don’t need us,” said Jeff Stoddard, senior environmental scientist for the agency and manager of the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area west of Sacramento. “They are using trees as refuge. Floodplains are their optimal habitat. They are great swimmers, and can survive in trees for weeks.
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“I know they look scared and cold, but they’re not stranded and they will be fine. It’s not that I’m heartless or don’t care. We just need to let animals be animals.”
Karina Snapp, animal care manager for the nonprofit Wildlife Care Association, which cares for orphaned and injured wild animals at a facility in McClellan Park, agreed that attempting to rescue the raccoons would be unwise. “Unless they appear sick or hurt, it’s best to just leave them alone,” she said.
“The raccoons likely went up into the trees to assess the situation, and they don’t want to be bothered by humans,” said Snapp, even ones with good intentions.
Jorgensen was among several people who posted photos on Facebook this week of raccoons clinging to tree branches in the Yolo Bypass after officials opened the gates on the Sacramento Weir. The weir is engineered to spill storm water from the Sacramento River system into a vast floodplain west of Sacramento, keeping cities like Woodland, West Sacramento and Sacramento safe from flooding during sustained periods of heavy rain.
At least a dozen people have phoned the wildlife agency with concerns about raccoons and other creatures that inhabit the area, Stoddard said.
Another Facebook poster, Jack Norris, wondered “how many animals drowned when they opened the floodgates,” and said he was researching rescue options.
Any rescue attempt would require permission from Fish and Wildlife, Stoddard said. Boats are not allowed in the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area, which is currently closed.
The North Valley Animal Disaster Group, a nonprofit organization based in Chico that rescues animals from natural disasters, is willing to try to capture and relocate the raccoons, said spokesman John Maretti. The group typically deals with farm and domestic animals displaced by fires and floods.
“We have no experience with anything like this. But we have boats, cages, dry suits,” said Maretti. “We have people waiting and ready to go.”
But Stoddard said Fish and Wildlife is not inclined to grant permission.
Snaring and caging the raccoons, he said, would place the animals under extreme stress. By law, they would have to be relocated within 3 miles of where they were captured. If moved to open areas, they would be more vulnerable to predators, Stoddard said.
A rescue mission also would be dangerous to people, he said. Boats could become entangled in trees or other debris and capsize. “I couldn’t imagine people risking their lives to rescue a raccoon that doesn’t want to be saved,” said Stoddard.
Stoddard said flood conditions are “a natural part of life” for animals that inhabit the area, and that he does not expect many fatalities of raccoons, beavers or other species as a result of conditions in the bypass.
Jorgensen said she is still worried, especially about the young raccoons.
“The kits stranded in treetops, far away from dry land, with no food source or shelter for weeks on end, are not adapting to these conditions,” she said. “Fish and Wildlife can do better than this.”