By Sarah Pridgeon
Living in Wyoming has exposed me to a terrible, life-altering truth: stuffed animals lie. When I was knee high to a grasshopper, my favorite toy was a hand puppet in the shape of a raccoon. It had plaintive eyes, rounded toes and a tiny upturned nose, all attached to the fluffiest of fluffy bodies.
For several happy years, that puppet was my constant companion. It was a source of considerable joy when used by one or other of my parents as a tickling tool or storytelling device. Raccoons must be the cutest little stripey buggers in the world, I thought… and then I met one.
All I have to say about the experience is that, dear lord, those things look sharp. An actual raccoon turns out not to be a petite critter that would fit snugly on a seven-year-old’s hand, but a bulky article that outweighs our dog on a two-for-one basis.
I recently visited a friend’s ranch house for dinner and was told there was a raccoon outside in a cage. They’d been forced to trap it because it kept going after the chicken coop, so they were planning to drive far, far away before setting it free.
I squeaked with excitement and asked if I could take a peek, still laboring under the impression that it might want to give me a cuddle. And thus I destroyed a lifelong belief. They are indeed fluffy, as it turns out, but they are also unnecessarily huge, sport pointy claws the length of my fingers and hiss unnervingly when approached.
Not cute, not cute at all. I’ve been told that a raccoon around these parts will lead a dog to water and hold its head under, which I believe after witnessing the malice in the depths of its eyes.
The photographs in my nature books had incorrectly confirmed my theory. In each of them, the raccoons looked friendly and sweet-natured, snuggling together and perching on logs, staring into the middle distance with sad little faces. This is not the truth. I conclude that camera posing is part of the raccoon propaganda effort.
Were I to describe a raccoon to one of my countrymen, I should call it a whole new league of badger: fuzzy in theory, bad-tempered in person. But there’s not much point describing it that way on this side of the pond, because your badgers are giant versions of ours with considerably larger teeth.
Which brings me to an important question: why are all the animals here so big, and the ones I grew up with so small? I’m dreading the day I meet a porcupine, which I’d always assumed was sized akin to an English hedgehog but am told is the circumference of a dustbin lid.
In England, we don’t have much in the way of sizeable wildlife, and therein lies the misconception. Foxes, badgers, squirrels and hedgehogs are about the sum of it, so stuffed animals are our only real exposure to the bigger, bitier specimens.
This places great responsibility on the part of toy makers to ensure they are properly educating those of us from less creature-endowed countries. I am no longer among those unhappy few who would run squealing in the direction of a grizzly, exclaiming how adorable it is as I tried to chuck it under the chin, but I used to be.
So if they really must put floppy ears and a button nose on a teddy bear, they ought to offset these things with a set of sharp fangs. Sure, it’ll hurt the first time your toddler waves it around their head and catches an earlobe on a claw, but they’ll be much better off when they meet a real bear.
When first I arrived, I took to enjoying the local scenery by walking to town every day from up in the canyon. Fresh air and wide open spaces were a brand new experience and one that I wished to make the most of.
And then the truth about mountain lions was revealed to me, in random informational nuggets such as, “I’d wear a hat if I were you, they like to sink their teeth into the back of your neck” and, “You probably shouldn’t leave the house without one of the big dogs, especially at dusk.”
Nonsense, I thought, you only find large animals in the zoo, not wandering about in the countryside. Even if I did come across one, I’m sure it would be fine – after all, they have such loving eyes. I miss the naivety I came here with, it helped me sleep at night, but at least this terrible tutoring has helped me escape a mauling.
I can only conclude that the people who make stuffed animals give no thought at all to the education of toddlers. Either that, or they’re relying on the same photographic reference that led me to believe raccoons were my cuddly little friends. No thanks to the toy-makers, I now understand that the furry things roaming Wyoming don’t have the best of intentions for my wellbeing after all.
Actually, in detailing the nefarious truth I have experienced a final chilling thought. There’s one more stuffed animal from my childhood collection that I have yet to mention… a giant, fluffy spider.