Raccoons on the prowl

Raccoons have been popping up in some unusual places recently. But local officials say the chance of those animals having rabies is pretty slim.

Last week a raccoon was discovered inside the Crown of Life Evangelical Lutheran Church on Wooster Street in Marietta.

“A custodian opened a closet door to get a vacuum and found a live raccoon inside,” said Pastor Joel Vogel.

He said the animal was pretty calm, and did not move around a lot.

Marietta City Police were contacted, and an officer removed the raccoon from the building.

Vogel said the animals have been spotted in that area before.

“Two or three weeks ago after the Wednesday evening service there was a raccoon just sitting out in the parking lot, not moving or doing anything,” he said.

Police have responded to dozens of calls about raccoons within the Pioneer City in the past few weeks.

That’s not unusual, according to Eric Bear, wildlife officer with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“I get calls all year round about raccoons. It’s pretty normal this time of year as the weather is warming and they’re coming out looking for food. And they’re quite adaptable, so it’s not surprising to see them in town,” he said.

Some people assume a raccoon is sick if it doesn’t run away when humans are present, but that’s not necessarily so, according to Washington County Dog Warden Kelly Schubert, who said the animals may simply be used to being around humans and therefore exhibit no fear.

“When I was young we used to hand feed hot dogs to raccoons from our front porch,” she said. “They were not afraid of us.”

On the same day the raccoon was discovered in the church, another incident was reported at Fort Frye High School in Beverly.

“It started at the post office across the street from the school. We got a call that a raccoon had been seen in that area, but before we could get there it was gone,” said Beverly Police Chief Mark Sams.

A short time later a call came in from the high school saying a raccoon was acting aggressive toward a custodian.

“They said the animal was walking toward them, not acting afraid at all,” Sams said. “Todd Stewart, the (Ohio Department of Natural Resources) wildlife officer for Morgan County, was notified and on the scene. Just from looking at the animal it appeared the raccoon had possibly been injured-maybe struck by a car.”

He said no one was injured by the raccoon, but the animal had to be put down.

Sams noted the Beverly Police receive very few calls about raccoons.

“We probably have more trouble with skunks,” he said. “But if we do get a call on a wild animal, we usually refer it to the local wildlife officer.”

One of the main concerns many people have with raccoons is the possibility of the animal carrying the rabies virus, a disease that can be fatal to other animals as well as humans who may be bitten by rabid animals.

Officials with the Marietta and Washington County health departments say there have been no confirmed reports of rabid raccoons in this area for several years.

“Instead of rabies, people with pets should be more worried about distemper,” Schubert said. “It’s not harmful to humans, but it makes cats and dogs sick-they throw up, have diarrhea, and will act sluggish. Animals can die within a week.”

There are two separate varieties of distemper-canine and feline-and raccoons are able to carry both. Whether in dogs or cats, once contracted, distemper can have an extremely high mortality rate. Kittens are the most susceptible to the feline variety, although cats of any age may contract it, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website.

“That’s why distemper vaccines are just as important as rabies vaccines for your animals,” Schubert said.

Ken Robinson, environmental health director for the Washington County Health Department, said in addition to raccoons, other wild animals may also carry the rabies virus, including skunks and bats, although there have been no confirmed cases reported in recent years.

“Rodents, as a rule, are not carriers of rabies,” he said. “That includes squirrels, rats and mice.”

If someone is bitten by an animal that is suspected of carrying rabies, Robinson said the only way to confirm whether the virus was present is to kill the animal, remove its head and have the head sent to the state health department in Columbus for testing.

“All we need is the head, and it should be refrigerated after it’s cut off,” he said. “We have to send the head to Columbus where they check the brain for the virus.”

Robinson said if a human is bitten, there is no charge for sending an animal head to Columbus. Otherwise the health department has to charge a fee for the process.

He said results of the test come back within one to two days.

“If a person is bitten, they have about 10 days before they would have to begin receiving treatment if the animal is proven to have the rabies virus,” he said.

A series of shots is given to prevent the rabies virus from infecting the person bitten. If not treated, rabies is usually fatal, although a few people have survived the virus, according to information from the Mayo Clinic.

There is a preventative rabies vaccination available for humans that’s usually given to those whose work with animals may place them at risk. The vaccine is available to anyone, but it’s costly, said Registered Nurse Barb Piehowicz with the county health department.

“It’s a pre-exposure vaccine called Rabavert that we order from California,” she said. “But the vaccination treatment usually requires three injections that currently cost $285 for each dose.”

For information about the rabies or distemper vaccines for animals, pet owners should contact their veterinarian or call the Washington County Health Department at (740) 374-2782.

If someone sees a raccoon acting strangely, they should contact police.