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Call him the "Raccoon Whisperer."
Joe Sanda gently wipes the mouth of a 4-week-old raccoon after he's finished bottle feeding the kit that found its way to his Stonington Wildlife Sanctuary.
The satisfied little ball of fur immediately settles down for a nap in the animal carrier that's temporarily housing him and two siblings, who were found three weeks ago in a garage in Deep River.
"I'm their mama and papa now," said Sanda, who has been rescuing raccoons for decades and has been a licensed rabies vector species rehabber for the past eight years.
His advice to the untrained: Steer clear of raccoons. Never, ever touch a raccoon unless you're wearing gloves (and even then you shouldn't touch them) and don't assume if you see a raccoon out during the daytime that it has rabies. While the mammals are nocturnal, it's not uncommon for mothers (sows) to go foraging for food in the daytime.
And just as important: If you happen upon a litter of babies (kits), don't assume they have been abandoned.
"Sometimes a mother will get run over and killed, but a lot of times people make these guys orphans when they don't have to be," said the 67-year-old Sanda, who worked 42 years for the U.S. Postal Service in Mystic before retiring, allowing him more time for raccoons.
"I just love animals, I always have," he explained.
Sanda now works part time at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center doing maintenance and also serves as one of their wildlife rehabilitators, specializing in raccoons. His wife, Cynthia Oxnard, is also a rehabilitator and it's a good thing because the couple have adapted their rural Wolf Neck Road home into an animal sanctuary, including a barn with an oversized and screened enclosure for the purring and chattering raccoons.
But the enclosure doesn't mean the raccoons are always outdoors. Evenings, Sanda moves the young ones, including five of the six currently in his care, inside his home where they will be warm. He even uses a heating pad for the littlest ones.
In the fall, Sanda releases all of the raccoons to the wild, but not until acorns - one of their primary sources of food - have fallen from the trees.
It was 26 years ago when Sanda took in his first raccoons after receiving a call from a friend who spotted two babies in a cemetery near Greenhaven Road in Pawcatuck. After determining that they were indeed without a mother, Sanda retrieved them and cared for them. For years he did it without formal training, but eight years ago, he underwent 40 hours of training and was licensed by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Now, he gets almost all of his referrals from the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center.
Every infant raccoon that arrives at his sanctuary gets a bath, which Sanda said makes them look "like little fluff balls."
For nourishment, he starts them on Pedialyte and then moves them to diluted puppy replacement formula, followed by undiluted formula. By the time they're about 6 weeks old, the raccoons are eating solids, including scrambled eggs with bananas, puppy chow with formula, and oatmeal cookies and grapes.
Grapes are a favorite food for raccoons, although in the wild they will eat just about anything, from clams and snails to human garbage and pet food, bird seed, insects, dead animals, and birds and bird eggs.
They are superb climbers, able to scale posts, trees and railings, thanks to the five dexterous toes on their front feet. And, because their hind legs are longer than the front legs, they look hunched over when they're on the move.
But the most notable thing about raccoons is the mask of black fur that covers their eyes - giving the appearance that they're wearing a mask, like a bandit would.
Sanda jokes that he's spent so much time with raccoons that "sometimes my eyes get black."
But he's very serious when he talks about human interaction with raccoons, pointing out that they're not only susceptible to rabies, but to roundworm, too. He always asks people who bring in raccoons whether they have touched them, and, if they were scratched or bitten.
The Pequotsepos Nature Center has issued a similar warning. In a post on its website, it recommends that well-intentioned people leave the birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians on their own, and not try to rescue them.
"In most cases, the animal's best chance of survival is in the wild," said the post.
And, in the case of skunks, raccoons and foxes - all categorized as rabies vector species - there is an even greater risk since they have the potential to carry and transmit rabies.
"Contact a wildlife rehabilitator only if the animal appears injured," said the nature center.
In the case of the two 1-week-old raccoons that were recovered from the mud puddle in Coventry, the mother and two other kits were dead when they were found.
Sanda nuzzles the two in his arms and up against his chest, "How can you run from these?" he asks, when a visitor says most people run when they see a raccoon.
"It's not a hobby for me, it's a passion," he said.