ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Vernon and Rachel Friesen of 411 S. Wilson, Hillsboro, wouldn’t have been much more surprised at what they found in their fireplace chimney last Sunday if it had been Santa Claus himself.
By the time their day-long adventure was over, the Friesens tediously extracted nine young-but dead-raccoons from just above the damper in the chimney.
“I guess that’s one way to spend a Sunday afternoon and evening,” Vernon Friesen said with a chuckle late last week.
For a couple of weeks prior to that Sunday’s grisly discovery, Friesen said he and Rachel had been hearing “chirping” in the chimney.
“We thought they were birds,” he said. “And we thought, well, after they get old enough to fly, they’d simply fly out and we’d close the chimney then so they couldn’t get back in.”
The chirping finally stopped, but the Friesens didn’t give the situation much more thought until the morning of June 8, when Rachel first noticed an unpleasant smell in the house.
By afternoon, the smell had grown more noticeable, and the Friesens’ noses led them to the fireplace.
“We went to the fireplace and opened the (glass) doors to see if it could be in there because for the last few days we hadn’t heard them chirping any more,” Vernon said.
“When we opened it up, the smell was so strong that we just had to open everything-doors and windows-and we set up fans all over trying to blow the smell out.”
Vernon said he then tried to open the damper, but there was something behind it and he could open it only part way.
“As I did that, I tried to figure out how I could reach over that damper and see what’s in there,” he said.
A steel craftsman and inventor for much of his life, Friesen said he went into his shop and created a U-shaped device from two 90-degree-angle radiator hoses. He attached the device to the end of a vacuum-sweeper hose and then used his custom tool to reach over the damper’s edge
“The first time I pulled it out, there was a claw sticking over the edge of the damper,” he said. “That scared me a little bit-like, hey, do I really want to reach in there?”
But Friesen did muster the courage to grab the claw, and then pull out the mysterious critter-which turned out to be a dead raccoon that was about 18 inches long from its nose to the tip of its tail.
“He smelled pretty strong, and there were a lot of flies,” Friesen said. “I thought I better check to see if there were any more because I could feel there was stuff in the way there when I pulled (the hose) around.”
This time, Friesen’s contraption caught a second raccoon carcass-this one by its snout.
Friesen said he then decided to check out the situation from another angle. He crawled up onto the roof of their house, used a small ladder to scale the five-plus feet to the top of the chimney, and then peered inside with a flashlight.
“It looked suspicious,” he said.
Friesen went back to the shop a created a second tool-a makeshift hook he made from a steel rod that he then bent into a shape that might enable him to catch however many more raccoons might be in the chimney.
“I pulled another one out, then another, and another one-until I had nine of them,” he said.
Rachel’s primary job was to hold the trash sack while Vernon transferred each critter from the chimney to the sack.
Because all nine animals were about the same size, Friesen deduced this was simply one large litter that had ventured out on its own.
“The mother evidently hadn’t gone in because there was no way she could have climbed out from inside the chimney,” he said. “These young ones must have just played ‘Follow the Leader.’ One went in and the rest just followed.”
Removing the varmints from the chimney was only half the job, though. The odor created by their demise still remained.
“We vacuumed the whole fireplace and cleaned everything up,” Vernon said. “Then I crawled up on the roof and poured half a bottle of Lysol in the chimney to disinfect it and get rid of the smell.”
The plan worked…. But it was 11 p.m. on Sunday before the couple finally sat down to eat supper.
“We couldn’t eat (earlier) anyway with the smell the way it was,” Vernon said.
The Friesens wanted to share their story to alert other residents that raccoons are at home around Hillsboro-and to let folks know that those agile critters can end up in the oddest places.
In fact, about a year earlier, a raccoon had come down the fireplace chimney and into the basement of Ken and Jean Jost, the Friesens’ next-door neighbors.
Ken Jost said the animal explored the downstairs and upstairs before finally making an escape through a basement window.
Raccoons have probably made their last visit inside the Friesen home, though. Vernon said he made a temporary wire covering for the chimney-top already that Sunday evening. The next morning he made and attached a permanent cover.
That’s a course of action Friesen recommends to others-unless they want an animal adventure of their own.
“That was quite an experience for a Sunday evening,” he said.