Saturday, September 21, 2013

1153. Raccoons in Alabama: How Can We Help Them?

By Kim Severson, The New York Times, September 19, 2013
April Russ fed a baby raccoon that she and her husband, John, are caring for in Woodville, Ala. The state has said raccoons should not be rehabilitated.

WOODVILLE, Ala. — There are at least two types of Alabamian you don’t want to anger. One is a wild raccoon. The other is a person who rehabilitates wild raccoons.

The state conservation agency that gives permits to volunteers who help injured and orphaned wildlife sent out a letter this month telling 72 groups and individuals to stop rehabilitating certain animals.
Instead, the animals should be left to their fate or euthanized, either with a bullet or at the hand of a veterinarian. From the state’s perspective, the move would help prevent rabies and keep the food chain in balance.
“There is no biological reason to rehabilitate these animals,” said Ray Metzler, assistant chief of wildlife for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “People need to learn to let nature take its course.”
On the list were feral pigs, coyotes, bats and foxes — animals that do not often end up in the care of the volunteers. But at the top of the list were raccoons.
Raccoons have never had it easy in Alabama, where a hunting license and a good coon dog are cultural currency in some parts of the state.
Hunting associations here can legally keep up to 10 raccoons in a cage to train coon hounds. And since the 1950s, the state has offered permits for an event called “coon on the log.”
The contests, which are rarer these days, are designed to test a coon hound’s mettle. A raccoon is tied to a log and floated into a lake. Owners then release their dogs and see which ones have the fortitude to knock the raccoon into the water.
But rehabbers, as the people devoted to helping injured wildlife call themselves, love raccoons. They are as cuddly as puppies and easy to train when they are young but extraordinarily ornery once they hit adolescence, which is when rehabbers generally release them back into the wild.
John Russ, a 65-year-old former Marine, just last week released two raccoons on his 144-acre sanctuary here.
He and other rehabbers say the new restrictions stem from a conflict between members of one rehabilitation group and local wildlife officials. But they also believe an inherent anti-raccoon bias is at play. “These guys, they have some issue with raccoons,” Mr. Russ said. “They always have.”
A hunter-first mentality, the rehabbers say, led to the state’s suggestion that raccoons, along with possums and skunks, which are also on the list, be euthanized or just left to fend for themselves.
Baby raccoons are often orphaned because trees felled to clear land leave animals homeless or new ribbons of roadways bring more cars, which kill mothers.
“A Ford truck is not nature taking its course,” said April Russ, Mr. Russ’s wife, who is also a rehabber.
The state’s rehabbers have vowed to fight the ban, even if it brings trouble in a state where keeping a wild animal without a permit is illegal.
“If somebody brings me a baby raccoon, I’m not going to turn it away,” Mr. Russ said. “It’s a death sentence.”
Pleas for support have been sent to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and to Ellen DeGeneres and Bob Barker, both animal rights activists. Two petitions with at least 28,000 signatures are being prepared for Gov. Robert Bentley.
Word is getting out to more rehabbers, a tight-knit group that has worked for decades to develop national guidelines. They share best practices, like what to feed a baby squirrel, how large a raccoon nesting box should be or how to make sure animals do not get too accustomed to humans while they are nursed back to health.
“The whole world is going to see this horrific thing happening in Alabama,” said Kim Baker of Coast and Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation in Malibu, Calif.
Mr. Metzler insists there is nothing nefarious in the new policy, which he said was developed not out of a dislike for rehabbers or raccoons, but after a year of study and consultation with federal wildlife and rabies experts.
He said the goal was to standardize policies that regulate both rehabbers and people who get paid to remove nuisance wildlife, like a snake in a garage or a raccoon in an attic.
“We are not trying to put them out of business by any means,” Mr. Metzler said, adding that rehabbers can still save rabbits, deer and squirrels.
“The point is we would like for people to leave wildlife alone,” he said. “That raccoon that’s accustomed to eating out of the dog bowl — it’s not going to survive in the wild.”

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