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The Lady Who Lived in the Chimney

By: Lynda Blankenship

When Zandra the female raccoon began searching for a place to call home she was a very serious raccoon. She was soon to have babies and baby raccoons had a lot of enemies. Dogs, cats, hawks, people; even other raccoons might try to harm her babies.

When she wasn't raising a family she lived high in the trees of a city park; but the city had hired a new man to care for the park and he hated dead trees. So he sawed and he dug and all the old, friendly snags went falling to the ground. The park looked very nice to the people who came there to play and to picnic, but there was no place left for a mother raccoon to hide her tiny babies in a dead tree trunk.

What was she to do? She had never left the park since she had been born there four years before. She looked high and low - day after night. She climbed up every tree, but she could find no place to call home.

She knew that time was getting short and that her babies would be born soon. If she didn't find a safe nest for them they would surely die. There was nothing else to do. She would have to explore the territory outside the park. This scared her because she had never been outside away from home before. She waited for night because darkness was always a raccoon's best friend. As a full moon rose over the tops of the trees, she put her little nose in the air and she searched to her right and her left - then she searched in back and in front, she sniffed, “snuff, snuff, snuff” and then she found it; the scent of garbage. Oh yes, the wonderful, wonderful scent of man's garbage. Her little feet followed her nose. (Down her tree, across the baseball field, through the creek.) She caught a few crayfish and washed them before she crunched down on their hard shells. While she was driven by a deep instinct to find a place to hide her soon-to-arrive babies, she had no way of knowing when she would find food again. She had to stay strong.

When the crayfish were gone she put her nose back in the air “snuff, snuff, snuff” it was still there - that scent so sweet carried on the wind as if someone had mailed her an invitation to visit. Zandra walked up a big hill and then she smelled something else, but this was not pleasant to her. While there were plenty of trees to explore there was also the awful, awful smell of CAT.

Zan wasn't afraid of CAT she was too big for CAT to bother. She would have been surprised to know that CAT was afraid of her. She just knew that CAT would kill her babies if he found them. She would have to keep looking.

A little further on she began to smell SQUIRREL there was also a strong scent of DOG, but she knew from the DOGS she had seen in the park, that most DOGS had HUMANS who did not let them chase and kill things. She was not afraid of DOGS or HUMANS any more and she had never been afraid of SQUIRREL. She only found them a nuisance. Things were looking up - then suddenly she saw the bag, a big bag with the wonderful, wonderful scent of food wafting out of it. She tore the bag open with her tiny paws, oh raccoon heaven - chicken bones, corncobs; even a few pieces of dry bread. She feasted for a long time. Then she spied a bowl of water sitting on an old tree stump, low to the ground - it smelled of BIRD and how she did love fresh BIRD. She walked to the bowl, cleaned off her paws and took a long, slow drink. No reason to rush, the boxes with HUMAN in them were all dark and quiet.

By the time she had finished exploring this very interesting place she had discovered, it had a woodpile and bushes, both good places for a raccoon to spend a hot summer day hiding and sleeping. It had large water dishes on stumps all over the yard. It had very tall old trees, oak and maple, cherry and birch, pines and dogwood, even a weeping willow with its branches draped to the ground. For some reason she didn't understand, the place had a rope bridge tied between two large trees.

She pulled herself up on it, it swung as she walked carefully across it and then climbed the big maple tree on the other side. From the tree she jumped onto the roof of the house. Then she spotted it, something sticking up from the roof, something large and square. She walked over to it, smelling the air for danger, she smelled none and so she crawled up the bricks that formed the box and she looked into the hole. It wasn't a dead tree, she knew that, but what was it? She crawled into the hole and began her descent. Down she went into the darkness, much farther down then she had ever gone in a tree. When she was only feet from the bottom she found a large, round pipe just big enough to sit in. A few feet further and she reached the warm, dry bottom of the thing. She couldn't believe her luck. This wonderful, wonderful place had everything she and her babies would need. She had found her new home. Of course, she had no way to know she had just invaded the home of Mr. And Mrs. Lannen. She knew only that she was sleepy and very pleased with herself.

Three days after she moved into the chimney, she began to pull fur from her soft belly, she made her nest and then settled down to give birth to four beautiful babies. Inside the house, the Lannen's began hearing strange sounds coming from their woodstove. “Oh no.” Mrs. Lannen said, “Another bird has fallen down the chimney.” This had happened twice before.

The first time a young starling had fallen in and had worked its way through the baffles inside the stove to emerge in the firebox (there was no fire of course - it was summer). Luckily, the stove had a glass door and the Lannen's dog, Buttons spotted the frightened bird. Assuming the dog pointer position, one foot up, tail straight out, and nose pointed to the stove, the little dog waited for someone to read her message “bird in the stove.”

Mrs. Lannen was in her kitchen baking cookies when she saw the little gray dog. “Buttons, what are you doing?” The dog did not answer; she just held her position. Then Mrs. Lannen saw it, something fluttering inside the woodstove. Something trapped by the glass door. She walked to the stove and looked in, the dog assumed her normal position and peered in the glass. “Buttons, you good dog. Thank you for seeing that poor bird. It must be very frightened.”

It was a beautiful summer morning and so Mrs. Lannen walked to her living room windows. She opened them, removed the screens and then returned to the stove. She opened the door and the frightened young bird flew directly to the light coming in the living room windows. It landed on the back of a chair, it looked back at the dog and the woman, chirped, and then flew out the open window. Mrs. Lannen and Buttons went to the window and wished the little bird a long life.

A few seasons later, Mrs. Lannen heard strange scratching sounds coming from the stove. “Not again!” She walked to the stove and looked inside the door, nothing there. She pulled the stove away from the pipe that connected it to the chimney, nothing in the pipe, nothing there either. This time her uninvited guest was trapped inside the baffles of the stove. She could tell by the sounds it was making that it was very frightened. How long had it been there? Was it growing weak from hunger or thirst? What was it? She was a woman with very small hands and so she put them into the baffles, searching for this latest victim of the chimney. This was a very foolish thing for her to do because she really had no idea what she would find. Then she felt it, feathers on a tiny ball, another bird she breathed a sigh of relief. Carefully she encircled the little thing with her hand. It only took a moment to pull her hand out of the darkness of the stove; then she saw it. A tiny owl, with big eyes, little ear tufts and a rotating head. The bird was so grateful to be out of the trap; he was quiet, saying his thank you to whatever gods owls pray. The woman thought he might be in a state of shock. She smiled at the bird, hoping that it would understand that she meant it no harm. Slowly she walked out onto her front porch and sat down with the little bird, she opened her hand and placed the owl on her knee. She fully expected it to fly away. Maybe, because it was daytime; or maybe because he was just tired, the little owl just sat there. He would turn his head to look at her, but he made no attempt to fly.

Perhaps he had been injured in his descent down the long chimney or in his struggle to find a way out. She carefully pulled his wings back; examining each one, she could see no damage. “He just needs a little time to gather himself together” she thought. She sat and sat and sat, but the bird did not fly away.

Finally, she had to get on with her work, so she took the little creature to her back deck and made him a little nest of leaves and tree branches. She carefully put him down and went back into her house. She returned in a minute with hot dogs, she warmed then in her hand to body temperature, broke them into little pieces and offered them to her guest.

The owl was hungry and grateful for her offerings. He was very careful not to hurt her with his sharp beak. Gently he took the meat of one hotdog and then a second. “Well, you certainly were hungry!” she said. She sensed that the bird just needed a little time and so she left him and went back inside. Frequently, she would look out her window and check on him. The third time she looked for him, he was gone. “Have a long life little owl,” she said.

Mrs. Lannen thought of these visitations as a very special gift. She had always tried to help things in distress. She never killed bugs, even when they got into her house. She caught them and took them outside. She believed that she was only one of God's creatures and that God expected us to care for each other.

That is why she and Mr. Lannen had planned their yard to be creature friendly. They planted trees that provided food and shelter. They put birdhouses in the trees for wrens and sparrows and robins. Mr. Lannen built them carefully with different sized entry holes for different kinds of birds. They left dead trees for the Woodpeckers to feed on and nest in. They had every kind of squirrel and chipmunk in their yard. They could always find a meal of seed or corn there. Bird baths were placed at different heights so that rabbits and opossums, chipmunks, and even shrews and skunks could find clean water to drink and the birds could bathe and keep their feathers clean. They made sure that bushes were left for hiding under and they never poisoned anything. The grass in their yard was always safe to eat. They even let the sweet tasting clover grow.

Their yard had once been part of a huge forest, but now the only wilderness left for these descendants of those early wild animals was the backyard at 958 Oakpark Drive. This was the paradise Zandra had brought her baby raccoons to. It didn't take long for the keen ears of Mrs. Lannen to hear the sounds in the chimney. “What now!” she said to herself.

She walked to the stove and listened. This was no bird. This was big. Then she heard the little sounds coming from below. “Baby animals! Oh no!” There was no way to get them out, would they be trapped there? Then she heard a growl coming from the pipe. She too was a mother and she instinctively understood that mom was with the babies and she had just told them to be quiet.

She waited for Mr. Lannen to return before they decided that the family was probably in no danger and so they should just wait and see what happened.

It wasn't until two nights later about 6:00 at night that they saw Zandra sitting on top of the chimney watching them. She was so beautiful. Mr. And Mrs. Lannen couldn't believe what they were seeing. How did she get up and down the shiny tiles that formed the inside of the chimney? What would happen to her babies if she got hit by a car, on her night time ramblings? They had seen many dead raccoons on the roads near their house. Maybe they should consult an expert. It was then that they discovered that the city Zandra lived in had declared raccoons a nuisance. That meant that any raccoons that were caught in the city had to be killed.

“Absolutely not,” cried Mrs. Lannen. “She has done nothing wrong. She has searched for a home to raise her babies and she found our chimney. It is not her fault that all the woods are gone. It isn't her fault that our neighbors cut down all their trees so they could plant grass. I think people who think they can actually own the land are the nuisance. Mr. Lannen and I believe that we are sharing our land with the creatures God put here.” They both agreed she could stay.

And so Zandra and the Lannens shared the house at 958 Oakpark Drive. Zandra tried to keep her babies from making too much noise, and the Lannens prayed for Zandra's safety every night.

Each morning Mrs. Lannen would check the stove for sounds that told her the mother had returned safely to her little family.

It was Memorial Day, 1999 when Zandra determined that it was time to take her children back to the park. They had grown fat and healthy in the chimney but they had outgrown the space. Late that night, when the Lannens were fast asleep, up they went, Zandra helping each little raccoon make the ascent to the roof. When she had them all assembled she showed them how to jump to the big maple tree behind the house.

One little raccoon followed her, but three stood on the roof crying and begging for her help. What a racket they were making. She had to get them to jump. She came back to the roof, nuzzled them and pushed with her nose until finally one more found the courage and jumped. Two down, two to go. Finally, after much motherly love and patience, all four babies were on the tree. Down they scampered, around the side of the house and back down the hill to the park. Zandra stopped and looked back at the chimney. “What a good home that was,” she thought.

The next morning the Lannen's grandson Zak came down to breakfast saying, “Grandma, you had ducks on your roof last night, they were making an awful racket.” Mrs. Lannen smiled, then walked to the chimney and listened. Her female intuition told her that the chimney was now empty of the little lives that had begun there. She turned to her husband and here grandson and said, “Those weren't ducks Zak. That was the lady who lives in the chimney.”

Post Script: Zandra returned to the chimney in the spring of 2000 to raise another family. All went well and once again they left on Memorial Day weekend.

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