There are many diseases that ravage little wild bodies. Of them all, I think the cruelest ones are those that attack the central nervous system. Raccoons are susceptible to both rabies and distemper, two central nervous system diseases that are virally spread and highly contagious. Rabies is always fatal. Fatal and vicious in the sheer brutality and speed with which it attacks the body of its victim. And distemper, while sometimes treatable in its early stages, is often fatal. If the initial respiratory stage of the disease doesn’t kill the animal, the secondary neurological stage of the disease often leaves behind paralysis, blindness, seizures or other disorders, rendering the animal’s quality of life highly questionable. Eventually, within a matter of months, the animal will die. In my wildlife clinic, I watch for these two diseases with wide open eyes and constant vigilance. Unfortunately, and ironically, by the time the symptoms appear, it is too late to stop the course of the disease. Often the best that I can hope for is to ease the animal’s suffering and to avert the spread of the disease to my other babies.
It is very unusual for rabies to appear in very young raccoons. The disease is usually the result of an attack from another rabid animal, spread through the saliva into an open wound straight into the blood stream. Very rarely it can be transmitted from a rabid mother as she grooms her babies with her tongue. But by the time a rabid mother has reached the contagious stage, the last thing on her mind is caring for her kits. So when I get orphaned raccoons in, while I always consider the possibility (unless I know otherwise) that their mother might have died from distemper, I don’t usually worry right away about rabies. I certainly consider it. But if I don’t see any sign of puncture wounds or gashes, I can only hope that they have dodged the bullet, so to speak. The rabies virus is not contagious in its early stages, and oftentimes a very small animal dies from the wounds inflicted long before the virus can work its way through its central nervous system. This is perhaps one of the reasons we don’t generally see rabies in small mammals like squirrels or rabbits, although we frequently see it in bats whose bites are unfortunately so tiny and subtle they are often undetectable.
Sometimes, though, one is unlucky. I received a small male raccoon from a DEM enforcement officer one summer afternoon. Like most toddler (six to eight-week old) raccoons when they’re scared, he growled at me and snapped when I reached into the officer’s trap to transfer him to a cage. As always, I wore heavy leather protective gauntlets and I was very careful. I had gotten my pre-rabies vaccines, and I knew how to handle aggressive kits. I put him into a cage to give him an opportunity to mellow out and acclimate before I examined him closely and would begin to rehabilitate him.
Less than an hour later, a nuisance wildlife control operator stopped by the clinic and gave me a single raccoon kit. This one was not aggressive at all, just scared and trembling. A little girl. I made a decision then to put the two together. Granted, there is always the possibility that one may transmit disease to the other. But that instance is rare, and more often than not, a single orphan will fail to thrive without a companion. Raccoons are highly social creatures, and I am convinced that their well being is beneficially influenced by being in close contact with siblings. Mother raccoons are generally very affectionate creatures, cuddling and grooming their babies. Rehabilitators who raise orphaned raccoons agree that their babies are far healthier and thrive more easily if given lots of attention and love as babies. And in turn, they grow up to become better mothers themselves, as we have seen with some non-releasable female raccoons who go on to being loving foster moms to other raccoon orphans in rehabilitation facilities.
I made the decision that day, and I’m not sure whether or not I would do the same today – the questions haunts me still – to put these two singletons together. I got the two settled into an enclosed carrier with a warm blanket, which in turn went into a larger locked cage. After initial growling and ruff raising by one, and trembling by the other, they settled down together. Their little bodies curled together, their muzzles met in the playful clench that one often sees with puppies, and eventually they fell asleep.
The following morning when I went out to check on them and bring them fresh food and water, the male was going completely berserk. He was snarling and attacking the little girl, who was crying with fear. His muzzle was pulled back into a genuine neurological snarl that I had never seen and have never seen since in a young raccoon and frothing with heavy saliva coating his muzzle. It has long been assumed that frothing at the mouth is the classic sign of rabies, and yet we rarely really see it in a rabid animal. It is only one of many possible symptoms, the more usual ones being aggression or unusual tameness and central nervous system symptoms like staggering. Yet here was this raccoon kit trying to kill the same kit he had curled up with the night before.
I called the DEM enforcement officer right away and he agreed to come back and take a look. Because I had put the female kit in with the aggressive male one, I had no choice but to let the officer know that we were now potentially considering the rabies virus in both. If indeed the little male was rabid, he was highly contagious and the female had now been exposed. I could not risk the safety of my other animals, or of any humans on the property (myself included) by not acknowledging this.
He showed up, a handsome older man with a sad look about him. I had no doubt that he had seen far more deaths than he had ever wanted to. He didn’t question my assertion, simply acknowledged that I was almost certainly right and that we had no way of knowing for sure. There is no current method of reliably testing an animal for the rabies virus without euthanizing it first. Tissue from the brain stem is required for the test, and right now that tissue is only obtainable by killing the animal and decapitating it for testing. It is a horrible, horrible system, but an equally horrible disease.
He very gently told me that he would take the two raccoons from the cage, in the carrier in which we had managed to contain them, and shoot them. He would also remove the bodies. While the idea of shooting anything is horrifying to me, it is considered to be a humane method of euthanasia when done by a skilled professional, such as an environmental protection officer. It is usually accurate and immediate. Because there was no history or exposure to a human, by which we mean there was no record that the rabid male had licked or bitten a human being, something we could be reasonably certain of because he had been brought in by a DEM officer, he did not have to be sent for testing.
In many cases, a member of the general public finds a baby raccoon and thinking it is completely adorable, hangs on to it for days or weeks before turning it over to a wildlife rehabilitator. In that time, they have touched it and petted it, let it lick their hands or face, let their neighbors or friends play with, perhaps even exposed it to young children. They don’t understand that by doing that, they are condemning the animal to death. The laws protecting us from exposure to rabies are rigid and severe for a reason. An animal that has a history of exposure to unprotected humans is required by law to be euthanized and immediately tested for rabies. It is argued that it is the only way that we can ensure the safety of the people exposed. If it turns out that the animal is rabid, the post-exposure rabies vaccines can then be administered to anyone who came in contact with the animal. The longer the time span between exposure and vaccines, the greater the possibility that the virus cannot be halted. When people ask me, “Why can’t you just quarantine the animal?” I have difficulty being able to articulate this whole issue. Quarantining an animal does not ensure that we’ll see the symptoms fast enough to halt it in an exposed human. When I handle young rabies vector animals like raccoons, I am doing it as a professional who has been vaccinated and understands the risks. How can I take that chance with someone who has not had pre-exposure shots, let alone with someone who has a more highly susceptible immune system like a child or elder? I can’t.
The officer took the carrier to the far side of our property, behind the garage where I couldn’t see what was happening. I waited in the driveway, my heart breaking. Suddenly I heard the rifle shot, like a pop. And then another. But before I could convince myself that the killing had been so quick the raccoons had not had time to feel pain or fear, I heard two more shots. Had one of them struggled or not been killed immediately? Had one run away in fear, needing multiple shots to be killed? I will never know, and I did not ask the officer. I stood in the driveway, tears coursing down my cheeks, knowing I had needlessly (albeit unknowingly) condemned the little female to death by putting her in with the other.
The officer came around from behind the garage, carrying a black body bag which he placed in the back of his truck and then he secured his rifle. He walked closer to me, a grim look on his face.
“Thank you.” I barely managed to say.
“I’m sorry.” He said softly before leaving, seeing the grief on my face. He did what he had to do, and I didn’t blame him for it. I didn’t grieve for the rabid raccoon, knowing the disease would have been much worse for him. I grieved for the female. I had to hold it together though, for one last task that was mine to do. I went into the house, into my wildlife clinic where I got a bottle of highly concentrated viral killing disinfectant, surgical gloves and a garbage bag. I walked out to the back of the property where the shooting had been done. I walked closer to the carrier that had been left on the ground, and then I saw the evidence of the shooting. On the grass were a couple of bloodstained masses of white tissue. He had aimed for the heads. I had to remove the debris, and disinfect the ground. All I could think about at that moment was protecting the local wildlife and wandering pets from coming through our yard and inadvertently sniffing and consuming this deadly tissue.
When I had wrapped everything in the garbage bag and disposed of it, and calmly gone inside to wash my hands, the dams let loose and I began to sob. My fault, my fault. I’m so sorry, I said over and over, as if somehow the spirit of the little dead female could hear me.