Well, here’s something that sounds like a straight-up horror movie happening in real life: “Zombie-like” raccoons have been terrorizing a town in Ohio for the past several weeks. According to local news network WKBN, more than a dozen reports of raccoons behaving in an alarming manner reminiscent of the undead creatures that populate so many of our movies and television shows have been phoned into police in Youngstown, Ohio recently — and the outbreak appears to be ongoing.
The account that’s centered at many reports of the story is that of wildlife photographer and Youngstown resident Robert Coggeshall, who was playing with his dog outside his home last Friday when he first spotted a raccoon approaching, according to the Washington Post. Coggeshall hurriedly brought his pupper inside the house — raccoons are nocturnal, so its daytime appearance tipped Coggeshall off that something might not be right (even if it's not unheard of for perfectly healthy raccoons to venture out during daylight) — after which the raccoon approached the glass door and began staring inside. Later, Coggeshall went back out, intending to shoo the racoon away from his home... at which point the animal’s behavior became even more alarming. “He would stand up on his hind legs, which I’ve never seen a raccoon do before, and he would show his teeth and then he would fall over backward and go into almost a comatose condition,” Coggeshall told WKBN. Then, he continued, “He’d come out of it, walk around, and then he’d do the same thing again. Get on his hind feet and show his teeth.” Coggeshall watched the raccoon for about two hours, taking around 250 photographs of it over the course of the day, reports the Washington Post.
Coggeshall’s experience is just one of 14 similar ones that have occurred over the past three weeks, according to WKBN.
The raccoons are not, of course, actual zombies. They’re probably not rabid, either, although the symptoms they’re displaying are similar. Rather, it’s likely they’re suffering from distemper, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said to WKBN. Raccoons are susceptible to both feline and canine distemper, although as the website Raccoon World notes, canine distemper is "common when raccoon populations are large."
As you may have guessed from its name, canine distemper can affect animals in the Canidae family (that is, dog-animals, including coyotes, foxes, wolves, and domesticated dogs), the Mustelidae family (the family that includes weasels, mink, otters, and wolverines), and raccoons, according to a fact sheet created by the government of British Columbia. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that the disease is usually spread when animals come in direct contact with the bodily fluids or droppings of an infected animal. Most domesticated pets are vaccinated for distemper, so it’s not usually something pet owners have to worry about their beloved Fido developing, notes the Toronto Wildlife Center; however, wild animal populations — among them racoons — can very easily be affected by it.
Early symptoms of canine distemper usually include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and extreme thirst, according to the Toronto Wildlife Center; as the disease progresses, however, the symptoms become neurological. An animal suffering from later stages of distemper — the stages during which they’re more likely to come out into the open due to being in a state of confusion or disorientation — might wander around aimlessly, appear “sleepy” due to a lack of energy, lose their balance, approach people in a way they wouldn’t normally, lack awareness of their surroundings, or suffer from seizures. They might also appear to have goopy or green discharge running from their eyes or nose. You can see a video of a raccoon displaying these symptoms here, although be warned: It’s both disturbing and really, really sad, so viewer discretion is advised.
According to the wildlife rehabilitation information resource Wildlife Education, distemper runs an incredibly short course; it typically doesn’t last much more than a week. It’s deadly, though — there’s no cure for it. In order to control outbreaks in wild populations, infected animals are typically euthanized, and the remains of animals who have died from it must be properly removed from the area and disposed of.
The good news is that canine distemper doesn’t affect humans; even so, though, you’ll want to keep kids away from any animals that might be displaying symptoms of it. The same, of course, goes for pets, especially since it can affect them if they haven’t been vaccinated for it. And keep yourself and anyone else you see away from them while you’re at it; even if the disease doesn’t cause harm to humans, animals suffering from it can behave quite aggressively, and a raccoon attack is no laughing matter.
If you happen to see a raccoon behaving oddly — at any time, really, but especially during the day — do not try to catch it yourself. WKBN recommends calling your local police station; you might also give animal control a call.
But also, if the zombie apocalypse starts tomorrow… well, at least we know where it probably began.