Although the yearly total of raccoons that have been killed by law enforcement has doubled in the last three weeks — and despite a reported case of rabies in Washington County earlier this month — officials say the animals did not present risks to public health.
Since July 31, Johnson City police officers have killed four raccoons after the animals displayed signs of illness or injury, bringing the department’s total number of slain raccoons to eight for 2014.
According to JCPD Capt. Matt Howell, officers occasionally engage in what the department calls “animal destruction.” In those cases, Howell said, officers choose to end the life of a wounded or potentially dangerous animal.
“The majority of animals we have to dispose of are deer that have been hit by cars that have broken their legs or have massive trauma,” Howell said. “The second would be raccoons that appear to be rabid. If they feel the animal is injured or does have rabies based on its activity, then they will go ahead and shoot the animal to relieve it of its suffering.”
In every case, Howell said, officers are required to receive permission from their supervising officer before killing an animal, and must contact animal control officers to dispose of the body. Howell said he was unaware of any reason why the number of destroyed raccoons doubled in the last three weeks, however.
“I don’t know the animals well enough to know the reason behind that,” Howell said.
In two of the last four incidents of animal destruction, the raccoons were found in the daytime hours wandering aimlessly, suffering from apparent confusion and unafraid of human contact. In another incident, an officer reported finding the raccoon lying on its back in a parking lot, struggling to breathe.
To Debbie Dobbs, director of the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter, those symptoms point to one likely scenario.
“The most common thing for those animals ... in our area is distemper,” Dobbs said. “Usually, when they’re out during the day, the most common thing is distemper.”
According to information from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, when a raccoon suffers from canine distemper — a virus that affects carnivorous animals’ gastrointestinal, respiratory and nervous systems — they can exhibit symptoms similar to those reported by the officers. Data from TWRA also indicated that distemper is most commonly contracted by juvenile raccoons, and that the juvenile raccoon population is at its peak in the spring and summer months.
Though the raccoons may have suffered from distemper, that will never be verified. In each of the four cases, after the raccoons were killed, their bodies were disposed of, either by Animal Control or JCPD officers. Regardless of what agency disposes of the animal, Dobbs said, the remains all end up in the same place.
“It would end up in a garbage bag in the landfill, the exact same place that it would if it was at someone’s home,” she said.
Dobbs added there was only one circumstance in which an animal would be checked for disease.
“If we have domestic pets or human contact — that means saliva contact from either bites or scratches — that’s when we become involved,” Dobbs said. “A sheriff’s deputy or police officer has to ... shoot the animal. We come get it, and I send it off for testing.
“If it has not had human contact, then it doesn’t get tested.”
In addition to human contact, wild animals are tested after coming into contact with domesticated animals as well. At a meeting of the joint city-and-county Animal Control Board on Aug. 5, Dobbs told members, in July, a dog was put down after it received injuries from a skunk that tested positive for raccoon rabies.
Despite that claim, however, according to information provided by Bill Christian, associate director of communications and media relations for the Tennessee Department of Health, there has been no confirmed case of raccoon rabies in Washington County this year. As of July 26, TDOH confirmed 20 cases of rabies in Tennessee, the closest of which occurred in a skunk in Sullivan County.
Despite the confusion, incidents of confirmed rabies cases in Tennessee remain low. While 2014 has seen 20 confirmed cases, in 2013, TDOH tallied 37.
Dobbs credited efforts from state and federal agencies in curbing the number of rabies cases, but added that members of the public are in a position to limit those numbers as well.
“You can’t push hard enough for people to not handle wildlife, and not put food outside ... and leave it out overnight,” she said. “They’re opportunists when it comes to food. If you have a raccoon or possum coming around, take food away, turn on a porch light for a week or two. Then it will get it in its head that the food is not there anymore and go on.”
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