It's 10:30 on a sunny spring morning in Alexandria, but Erika K. Yery is whispering.

She is trying not to wake up the five orphan raccoons that are sleeping in her darkened living room. They are just 10 days old, and they need their rest.

They aren't the only ones who need their rest, though. Yery was up late the night before to feed the baby raccoons, which are called kits or cubs. She also was up early to give them a breakfast of Gerber rice cereal. If a light or a noise disturbs the kits, they will start twittering like a nest of hungry birds, and they won't stop until they are fed again, or they wear themselves out. That's why Yery is tiptoeing.

The kits don't look anything like their parents yet. Each weighs just eight ounces, while their missing mother probably weighed about 25 pounds. The babies' fur is short and tan, and they have chocolate-colored legs and fat tummies. They swish their tails like cats. You can hardly see the masks that will make them look like bandits when they grow up. The rings around their tails will get dark later, too.

Their eyes won't even open for another two weeks. Without Yery, they would be dead.

Yery is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. That means people call her when they find a wild animal that is in trouble. She takes care of these animals -- or knows someone who can -- until they can be returned to the wild. And she does it for free.

The five raccoons -- plus 14 more that have arrived since late April -- will live with Yery until September or October. Then they will be released in an area where they will be safe from hunters. It also will be the kind of place that raccoons like, with woods and plenty of water.

The young raccoons will be watched and fed until they are ready to live on their own in nature. The process is called a slow release.

In 20 years Yery has cared for about 1,000 raccoons. She also takes in foxes, bats, skunks and groundhogs. These species can carry a deadly disease known as rabies, so Yery must have a special permit from the federal government to handle these animals. She also has had shots to protect herself against possible infection.

As cute as baby raccoons can be, Yery says it is against the law to keep any wild animal at home. And even if it wasn't, raccoons make terrible pets.

"They will destroy your houses," she warns. When they get older, they bite, too. It also is hard to feed kits correctly, so they can die even if you love them a lot.

"It's not right for the animal" to try to keep it at home, Yery says. "They want to be in the wild."

"It is sad," she says, about the day when she must say goodbye to the animals that she saved. "But you are happy that you did this. It is very rewarding."

Just remember, please, if you visit Yery's house, try to keep your voice down.

-- M.J. McAteer

These kits are among about about 1,000 raccoons cared for by Erika K. Yery

in 20 years.When ready

to live on their own, raccoons are released

in a safe