Kids, Go Catch a Raccoon

A decades-old book romanticizes a time when children were free to capture wild animals for pets.

A toddler holds a fox in a grassy meadow
Jane Khomi / Getty

No one today could get away with publishing The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets. A popular children’s hardback throughout the 1960s, full of tips on the capture and care of snakes, skunks, hawks, prairie dogs, raccoons, and numerous other creatures, the book enthusiastically encourages kids to perform acts now deemed illegal under state and federal law. “The feathers of the baby screech owl are snow-white,” writes Roy Pinney, the book’s author and photographer. “The best time to take one from its nest is toward the latter part of May.”

As a source of instruction, The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets is obsolete, to say the least. Most kids today don't want prairie dogs riding around on their shoulders, and most parents would gag if they came upon their son or daughter bottle-feeding a raccoon. Still, the book is a gem, not so much for its teach-your-pet-crow-how-to-talk bouts of enthusiasm (although these are entertaining) as for the disorienting reflection it provides on contemporary American childhood, as well as on how we think—and don’t think—about animals today.

Since this Golden Book was published in 1959, owning exotic pets has been made illegal in many states. Suburban parents are encouraged to check their kids for ticks the moment they set foot past their yard. Eastern bat populations have been decimated by fungal disease, while deer populations have grown exponentially. Raccoons’ numbers have also surged throughout North America, and urban raccoons might be growing even more dexterous and intelligent than their rural counterparts.

In the context of these and other changes, many of Pinney’s sentences sound like ready-made proverbs from a bygone and unimaginable world. “Do not make a part-time pet out of your raccoon if there is a poultry farm nearby,” he warns, writing at the tail end of an era in which it would be unremarkable to see a person walking down the block with an unplucked, freshly killed chicken. Later, he advises: “Always ask your dealer for directions on feeding and housing any imported animal.” By “dealer” he means your monkey dealer, a profession that’s fallen out of fashion in the last 60 years.

What’s not in Pinney’s book is as interesting as what is there. There are, for example, several useful types of adults referenced: veterinarians, game wardens, officials at local zoos and animal societies (Pinney tells kids to unload their wild-animal pet on these officials once they are no longer able to care for it). But among the book’s significant omissions is a rather important category of adult: parents.

There is in fact only one mention of parents in the entire book. You might assume that Pinney would use such an opportunity judiciously, something like, Make sure to check in with your mother before you order the monkey. Instead, he writes: “If your mother is missing a piece of jewelry, you can be sure that your crow is the culprit.”

My kids and I have harbored a variety of small, wild critters in our house over the years. A garter snake lasted six-or-so months, until it slipped its confines and appeared, a week later, on our toilet seat. In the spring, we often put a batch of tadpoles or toad eggs in a 10-gallon aquarium. But compared to what the kids are doing in The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets, my family’s wild-animal forays have been awfully tame. Did many suburban middle-class kids in the 1950s and ’60s actually go out and trap their own baby hawks and bats and raccoons? How many “backyard zoos” were there? Did more than one child actually teach their pet crow to talk?

Absolutely, says Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Huck’s Raft, the authoritative history of American childhood. The geography of childhood was wider in those decades, and the expectation was that kids would make bold use of their unsupervised time. “There truly was a sense that childhood needed to be a period of freedom, of group bonding, of risk-taking,” he says, “and it had to be spent out of doors as much as possible.”

In regard to animals, Mintz, who was himself a child during the ’50s, recalls at least one friend who owned a pet ocelot ($45, according to the Golden Book), and another who had a monkey. But in the 1970s, he says, something fundamentally changed. “No longer was a cast on an arm or leg a badge of honor, signed by classmates. It raised the specter of abuse or parental carelessness.”

“In a thousand ways, kids’ lives are safer and healthier,” Mintz adds, “but perhaps not in the ways that matter most.”

Maybe not, but it’s still pretty hard to ignore the numerous errors in judgment included in The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets. Isn’t it, for example, simply rude—if not immoral and destructive—to encourage thousands of young readers to remove baby screech owls from their nests? And why on earth would the author who writes “Monkeys have always been popular as pets, but they seldom work out really well” also explain where and how to procure a monkey?

Some of the book’s smallest details are especially unnerving. In a brief line, Pinney instructs his child readers to collect freshwater clams as a snack for their bottle-fed raccoons. Consider the logic of this: Not only would his readers have the time to train a raccoon to a bottle, not only would their parents allow them to wade into the Chesapeake unsupervised, but the kids would also be able to find and identify those tasty clams.

These assertions no longer work. Numerous studies indicate that children in the developed world spend far less time outside in unstructured play than kids did a generation ago. They’re building zombie-flesh farms on Minecraft, not cages for their pet raccoons. And even if today’s kids had both the raccoon and the time, most species of native clam are either endangered or entirely gone.

Pinney wasn’t clueless, however. He knew that children had caring and protective parents. He also knew that the wild animals of the world faced numerous perils. Other Pinney titles from the ’60s include Vanishing Wildlife and Wildlife in Danger. These well-meaning books paid homage to “unexploited nature’s infinite variety” and explained the threat of species extermination. Perhaps they even played a small role in bringing the crisis of extinction to national attention. Unfortunately, they are so boring they will make your teeth itch.

That’s a shame, because Roy Pinney himself was not boring. He flew his own WWII-era BT-13 airplane around North America reporting stories for Life and Colliers. He was friends with pinup model and photographer Bunny Yeager, and he took photos of her taking those famous pictures of Bettie Page in a cheetah-print bikini. Shortly before he died in 2010, he had more than a hundred snakes (some of them poisonous, many of them uncaged) in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Supposedly, at one time or another, he kept as a pet almost every animal mentioned in his Golden Book.

Other than a paycheck, what did Pinney want from a book that encouraged children to carry flying squirrels around in their pockets and offered instructions on how to treat mange at home?

Being a kid is something that just happens, preferably without an excess of cruelty or pain. But childhood itself is an invention, one that’s remade by society again and again. “We may think of childhood as a biological phenomenon,” Mintz writes in Huck’s Raft, “but it is better understood as a life stage whose contours are shaped by a particular time and place.”

In The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets, Pinney did his best to invent an American childhood that was tactile, immersive, and misery-free. In his world, no kid would ever be without an animal in their hands, and the worst thing that could happen is your armadillo would get sick. There were no negligence lawsuits, no creepy neighbors, no extinction alerts, and—best of all—you could drop your possum off at the zoo as soon as you got bored with it.