Where We Live
by Steve Carr
Terror in the Garden
Stalked by a rabid raccoon
We had Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, formerly Horseheads Wetlands Park, in Grasonville, nearly to ourselves in early March. Cruising around, checking out the birds, Inna and I wandered to a boardwalk observation tower over a big marsh the Prospect Bay side of the park. The sun felt heavenly, and we were basking in the late-afternoon glow, when we heard a strange screeching below us. It sounded almost like a baby. Over the railing, I saw a raccoon staring up at me.
It did the most amazing thing: It slowly climbed up the side of the tower. When it got to the top of the post, it leaped, almost drunkenly, crash-landing on the deck. We were effectively trapped.
The raccoon eyed me with interest, then moved in my direction. When I climbed up on the railing in fear and amazement, he changed course and veered toward my friend, backed into the corner of the deck with nowhere to go. The raccoon wasn’t moving fast, or in a threatening manner, but he was walking as if on a mission.
Inna followed my lead and scooted up on the railing to get her feet off the deck and away from her furry antagonist.
The raccoon stopped in front of her, almost as if it were a tame pet. It seemed as confused as we were, shaking its head and looking around as if it were being buzzed by invisible flies. Then it stood up on its hind legs, ready to leap onto Inna’s lap. At the last second, she jumped down off the railing and kicked the raccoon squarely in the chest. It screamed and slammed into the railing; skittered across the deck almost blindly; tumbled down the steps; ambled drunkenly along the boardwalk to shore; then stood unsteadily at the end of the ramp, again blocking our only avenue of escape.
Now what should we do?
“It’s rabid,” I said.
That was the only way to explain this incredible chain of events.
Out on the far end of the boardwalk, where a small stream meandered into the bay, I found two big sticks. Ready to defend ourselves, we cautiously walked the boardwalk back toward shore.
By the time we got to land, the coon had vanished. But talk about weird. And scary, too.
We quickly made our way back to the ranger’s house to report our encounter.
A hiker had been attacked by a raccoon in that same area only an hour before, he told us. The raccoon had bitten the man’s jeans but had not broken the skin.
We tend not to think of our local parks as havens for dangerous animals. But it is always wise to be alert no matter where you might be.
According to rabies.com, “Rabies is a preventable viral disease that causes acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). The virus exists in the saliva of mammals and is transmitted from animal to animal, or from animal to human, by biting and/or scratching. If left untreated in humans and animals, rabies is fatal.”
I called John Nickerson, of the Queen Anne’s County Public Health Department, who has been in the rabies business for 35 years, to learn more.
There are two kinds of rabies, the terrestrial strain, which can be spread by virtually any animal, and the bat strain, which comes primarily from silver-haired bats and is invariably fatal. Terrestrial cases are astronomically rare and are treated with a series of shots in the arm, not the foot-long needles in the belly nightmare that our parents used to warn us about. If treated promptly, terrestrial rabies is not lethal.
There has only been one documented case of a person dying from rabies in Maryland, and that was back in 1972, when a lady, walking her dog in Cecil County, was bitten on the neck by a rabid bat.
“Cats are what we fear the most,” said Nickerson, “because they can become rabid from contact with another animal, like a coon, and then a person can unknowingly pick them up and get bitten. And cat bites are puncture wounds, which get into the bloodstream much easier than, say, a dog, whose bite is more of a rip or tear. The key is to not pet animals unless you know they’re safe not a squirrel, not a rabbit, not even a goat at the county fair. If you do get bitten, disinfect the wound immediately and go to the emergency room.”
And I would add: Practice your kicking.