Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Anna Ribcuic watches Tilly the raccoon and her trainer Rachael Rufino at CuriOdyssey in San Mateo.
Merlin deserves recognition; he’s outlived most of his fellow species and although he might be a little cranky, he and his two new roommates are educating children about living in harmony with wildlife.
CuriOdyssey at Coyote Point is home to Merlin, a 14-year-old raccoon who is the oldest living raccoon in captivity on record.
He’s spent most of his life at the science and rescue wildlife center in San Mateo and his digs were recently upgraded thanks to an anonymous donor who helped fund the center’s new raccoon habitat, said Niki Finch-Morales, director of wildlife at CuriOdyssey.
Merlin’s new dwelling is three times larger and is fitted with water features, grassy patches, stone decor and two new female companions.
About two weeks ago, Merlin, Pebbles and Tilly officially began to reside under the same roof.
Raccoons are typically solitary, so it took some time for the trio to become acquainted, but now all three are on display for children to have an up-close encounter, Finch-Morales said.
“It’s building this kind of relationship when kids are young and giving them the opportunity ... to get up close to animals and have a personal experience,” Finch-Morales said. “They’re more willing to accept the closeness of wildlife.”
Visitors can safely stand inches away from the frisky raccoons and watch as their trainers feed, play and teach them tricks.
Pebbles and Tilly have no qualms following commands and showing kids of what they’re capable.
But in his old age, Merlin has grown exceedingly particular and rarely greets anyone without a hiss; except for his beloved trainer Jen Gale, Finch-Morales said.
He sleeps most of the time, but allows Gale to massage his arthritic back and is quick to perk up when she brings him food, Finch-Morales said.
Although Pebbles, Tilly and Merlin have a lot in common, introducing wild animals to one another requires a few months of careful calculations, Finch-Morales said. They were introduced in pairs. First to each other’s scent by swapping blankets, then they moved on to the look-but-don’t-touch stage courtesy of a chain-link fence and finally they were all united in the new habitat, Finch-Morales said.
Most of the animals at CuriOdyssey are native to California and arrived because they were unable to be rehabilitated back into the wild, Finch-Morales said. All three raccoons were found when they were young and after either being hand-fed or growing up in a zoo, probably wouldn’t have been able to survive on their own, Finch-Morales said.
“Animals have to adapt. Many have actually adapted to urban lifestyle and they didn’t have a choice. Animals that can thrive are those that can interact with us without conflict,” Finch-Morales said.
Like Merlin, Sierra, an 18-year-old coyote, is living well into old age. They’re given excellent medical care, food and a nice place to live, but people who try to domesticate wildlife end up depriving nature, Finch-Morales said.
“That’s one of the sad things, when you take them from the wild you’re depleting the population of prime genetics,” Finch-Morales said.
So CuriOdyssey teaches children to look but don’t touch, Finch-Morales said.
Anna Ribcuic, a 5-year-old visitor, was a little shy at first, but perked up when she saw CuriOdyssey’s resident fox, her grandmother Judy Sleeth said.
“She’s just fascinated. She was completely interested in every single exhibit,” Sleeth said. “Children don’t usually get to see animals very close. I mean how often does a child get to see an otter?”
Instilling an emotional memory in a child of having a positive encounter with animals helps them to become advocates for wildlife in adulthood, Finch-Morales said.
“We hope when people have this connection with animals they take [the experience] into adulthood, that there are other living things on the planet as opposed to treating [wildlife] like an outsider coming into our areas,” Finch-Morales said. “My responsibility as a human, that has more control of the environment, is to make sure that there’s always a space for them.”
For more information about CuriOdyssey visit www.curiodyssey.org.