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A Veterinarian’s Lesson to her Children: “Do Not Ever Pet Wild Animals”

By Kim Everson, DVM

We had just finished an impromptu cook-out with some college friends on their way home from visiting family for Father’s Day. The men had taken the troupe of seven kids on a short walk around the farmland. I was in the kitchen chatting with my friend and packing lunches for my kids’ first day of summer “enrichment” school. It had been a noisy evening. Seven children under age eleven bickering, whining, laughing, crying, and showing off with the adults’ voices escalating to converse over the top of them. Suddenly, in the farmyard, a new sound met our trained mother-ears: shrill screams of excited fear overridden by the two dads’ scolding in an oddly harsh, desperate tone.

A cute but unhealthy and abnormal acting raccoon kit.
A cute but unhealthy and abnormal acting raccoon kit.
We rushed to the window, our hearts in our throats. The little girls ran up to us chirping, “A baby raccoon! A baby raccoon!” Puzzled about the drama unfolding outside, we joined the raccoon’s entourage. Kids ran pell-mell around the driveway, shouting and pointing, daring each other to get close to the wild creature hiding among the rocks and weeds in front of the playhouse. As I listened and watched, it became clear that the youngest of my brood, my fearless three-year-old, had been reaching out to pet the baby raccoon prompting the fathers’ commanding shouts earlier.
With the kids at a safe distance, I approached the baby raccoon and evaluated it from afar. As the kids chanted “it’s so cute” in the background, I listed off my concerns. First, it was barely moving. Paralyzed with fear? Fear can make dogs, for example, appear to move in slow motion as if they are sleepy. But this raccoon barely seemed aware of our presence, as loud as we were. Next, its third eyelids (nictitating membranes) were elevated from the inside corners of both eyes, practically obscuring its eyeballs. Elevated third eyelids in my dog and cat patients frequently indicate serious illness and discomfort. Finally, we’ve never seen a raccoon in the farmyard or even evidence of one since we’ve inhabited the buildings here. A wild animal hanging out in a high activity area crawling with people and dogs–even an inexperienced youngster–is probably sick, possibly rabid.
It being mid-June, this raccoon kit should still be living with his mother and littermates. The juveniles do not become independent until the fall. Was this kit’s mother one of the countless roadkill raccoon that populate Wisconsin highways? Did she die of distemper virus, a frequent cause of death in North American raccoon that can reach epidemic proportions wiping out large numbers of animals? Perhaps this kit is likewise affected and showing the neurological symptoms. Incidentally, the distemper virus that kills raccoon is the same distemper virus that all puppies and dogs should be vaccinated against. It is the same virus, it is just as lethal in dogs as in the raccoon, and as long as it exists in the raccoon population it remains a threat to our canines.
After observing the creature and debating our options (by the way, as cute as it is, the raccoon is not commonly accepted for wildlife rehabilitation for a variety of reasons), I decided humane euthanasia was the kindest ending for the kit and the safest for my human and canine family (and friends).
Once the raccoon had been put out of its misery, we had a fervent and frank discussion with the staring children. My eldest two had heard this speech many times before, but I had unfortunately never gotten around to telling my preschooler. “Never, never, ever touch a wild animal. If it lets you get close enough to touch it it is probably very sick and might bite or scratch you. It might have a terrible disease called rabies that can kill you.” Grave nods all around. How much of this do they even understand, I wonder. “But if you forget,” I add gently, “If you someday forget and do touch a wild animal, it is very important that you tell a grown up right away.” Even though I regret I failed to prepare my youngest child for this unusual scenario, after tonight I guarantee there are seven Wisconsin kids who won’t easily forget the lesson learned first-hand.

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