On the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 13, a small patchy-colored kitten wandered onto the grounds of the Anacostia Farmer’s Market, at Peace Park in Southeast. “It was very cute and friendly,” recalls Nadja Strucker, the manager of the market.
“We all picked it up and held it,” she says. “It nipped at us, but like a kitten plays, not malicious bites. We were afraid that if we called the Humane Society, it would get put to sleep, so one of the volunteers took it home.”
In its adoptive home, the kitten became aggressive and began biting the feet and ankles of its caretakers every time they walked by. Chalking it up to kitten eccentricity, they just started wearing wool socks around the house. It wasn’t until the kitten’s legs gave out that they realized it was sick.
Doctors at Friendship Hospital for Animals examined the kitten and suspected the worst. After they put it to sleep, decapitated it, and then flooded a sample of brain cells with fluorescent antibodies, test results confirmed their suspicions: The kitten was rabid. Four people from the market and the examining veterinarian (who was bitten during the examination) were advised to get a series of rabies vaccinations, at a cost of almost $2,000 apiece. Had the volunteer not taken the kitten home and subsequently noticed its symptoms, this could’ve ended in disaster. Any one of the “friendly nips” during the initial encounter could have transmitted rabies—which, if it reaches the symptomatic stage, is fatal in more than 99 percent of cases.
Rabies, derived from the Latin term for “fury,” is commonly thought of as a rural problem, a disease of the backwoods or the frontier. Most urbanites, if they consider the critters around them at all, are more likely to wonder about the rats in the kitchen of their neighborhood takeout. Who ponders rabies in the middle of the District of Columbia? Like scurvy or train robbers, rabies is a threat of the past, not the present.
Or, is it? Rabies cases in the District and eight surrounding counties have all increased in each of the past three years, more than doubling in some jurisdictions. In late August in Garrett County, Md., a rabid bear tried to invade a house by ripping an air conditioner out of a window. The aforementioned rabid kitten wandered into a busy farmer’s market in the center of D.C. Rabid skunks, bats, foxes, and raccoons have turned up in every corner of the region, from Chevy Chase to Anacostia, from Fairfax to Monrovia. Last year, a Girl Scout summer camp in Loudoun County was invaded by a flock of bats, and 20 campers were advised to get rabies shots. If rabies isn’t on your radar now, odds are it will be soon.
Peggy Keller works as chief of the Bureau of Community Hygiene at the city’s Department of Health. When it comes to rabies, she’s got a near endless supply of jaw-dropping anecdotes. There’s the old woman in Northwest who a few years back installed a pet door so the local raccoons could come into her house and eat off her dinner table. When one of them turned up rabid, the city had a hell of a time convincing her to cut off her little friends. And in October, a local man awoke in bed one night to find a raccoon gnawing at his face—the critter had come through a pet door (the backyard opened onto Rock Creek Park), climbed the stairs to the second floor, and, finding the man sleeping in his bed, bit him for no apparent reason. (The victim declined to comment for this story, out of embarrassment.) The raccoon tested positive for rabies.
That a raccoon was able to enter and navigate a house is surprising only if you’re unfamiliar with these prodigiously intelligent animals. You may think your Yorkiedoodle is smart because it recognizes the sound of a can opener, but comparing a raccoon to a dog is like comparing Stephen Hawking to Kevin Federline. Naturalists have seen raccoons pick, aim, and throw fruit at a barking dog, and one park ranger swears that an injured raccoon she nursed back to health would scrutinize itself in the mirror, a feat of self-recognition that scientists have confirmed only in primates, dolphins, and the occasional frat guy. Raccoons also have a malicious streak. They’ve been known to rape small pets and get drunk on fermented fruit juice. To top it off, they have maybe the best nonprimate hands in the animal kingdom, five delicate fingers with which they can turn a doorknob, unlatch a gate, or remove a shoelace from a shoe.
The upshot of all this is that raccoons are superadaptable, capable of penetrating and flourishing in habitats that would defeat nearly any other animal. Cities are like playgrounds, where tools abound and a veritable feast awaits underneath every garbage-can lid. If a raccoon wants to move into your house, there’s not much you can do to prevent it—it’ll pry open vents, tear off roof shingles, climb down chimneys, open gates, dig under fences, and make itself at home, often in a fluffy nest constructed out of insulation stripped from your walls. They’re also omnivorous. Garbage, insects, pet food, gum, the contents of disposable diapers, anything remotely edible is fair game.
Given these facts, it’s a near-certainty that raccoons are living in your backyard, and while these urban raccoons generally keep to themselves, that all changes when they contract rabies. The rabies virus travels along the nervous system and attacks the brain itself, causing a breakdown of all cognitive functions. Before the final crash into dementia, coma, and death, a rabid animal (or human) often exhibits highly unusual behavior, as inhibitions disappear in an encephalitic fog. Hence, a nocturnal wild animal that normally flees at the mere sound of a human will suddenly venture out in broad daylight and, upon crossing paths with a human, attack without provocation.
So what do you do if you come across a raccoon in the city? You can call the city’s animal prevention team, but there are limits to what sorts of cases they’ll take on. If you come across a raccoon that’s foaming at the mouth or acting conspicuously ill, they’ll come out and take care of it. But if you just spot a raccoon ambling through your yard, they’ll most likely just tell you to wait it out. The D.C. animal control officers are stretched thin as it is—there are only seven of them; a maximum of two are on duty at any given time, and only one at night. In fiscal year 2007, they took 15,200 calls. That’s an average of about 42 per day.
Ted Deppner is the senior animal control officer in the District. He’s been crisscrossing the city in a van for 26 years, wrangling berserk deer and fighting dogs and rabid cats.
On the day I rode along with him, he had to attend to a break-in at the animal shelter, probably by an overzealous pit-bull owner who just couldn’t live without little Killer, a deer in Southeast that had been shot in the ass with an arrow and was limping around a residential neighborhood, a dog that had been found by a pedestrian after it got hit by a car, a possibly rabid raccoon that had been killed in a Capitol Hill backyard by a possibly unvaccinated Akita, a Rhodesian ridgeback that had mauled another dog at a dog park and then fled the scene (we cruised the surrounding neighborhood several times, peering into backyards, but couldn’t find it), and another raccoon that had been hit by a car and was now stumbling insensibly around Palisades. This was all before noon, on a weekday. This kind of workload necessitates a brisk pace, ruthless prioritizing, and constant multitasking. Deppner is thorough and friendly, but unless your problem animal is front and center, out in the open and ready for trapping, he’s only got time for a brief look around before moving on to the next call. As a result, there’s a significant demand for a wildlife extraction service that handles all aspects of the problem in one fell swoop.
A lot of the city’s overflow bounces into the hands of entrepreneurs like Tim McDowell, who runs a private, on-call wildlife extraction service and has been trapping animals for about 20 years. On a cold day in mid-November, McDowell takes me to a stop east of the Anacostia River, near Central Avenue and 52nd Street SE. A woman has at least one raccoon in her attic and wants it out. McDowell says that this part of town is “ate up with animals.” We pass a cluster of ramshackle buildings, windowless and abandoned.
“Those are all full of raccoons, I guarantee it,” he says. “That’s exactly the type of place they breed.”
The house with the raccoons is a block down. We park and go around back. There’s a large ragged hole in the underside of the roof overhang. There are tufts of hair around the opening and we can see straw and leaves inside. “That’s raccoon hair,” says McDowell. He puts the ladder up against the two-story brick row house, climbs up, thrusts his arm into the hole up to his shoulder, and starts feeling around blindly.
“Aren’t you scared of getting bitten?” I ask. The city captured a rabid raccoon less than two miles from here in August when it came down someone’s chimney.
“I have all my rabies shots,” he says. He starts pulling out handfuls of straw and assorted trash and tossing it down. “This is definitely the nest here.” The composition of the nest is about half leaves, twigs, and straw, and half cellophane wrappers from cigarette packs.
McDowell gets down and goes to his truck. He takes out a roll of chicken wire and wire cutters and begins constructing an exclusion chute, an open-ended wire tunnel with a weighted flap inside that allows the animal to exit but prevents it from re-entering. As he splices this together, he riffs on a recent job. “Just the other day, a guy called me about a deer that got clipped by a car in front of his house. I got there, and the deer was limping around the yard.” He mimes a gimpy deer trot. The animal had to be put down.
“How’d you do it?”
“Well, the law says you gotta do it humanely, so I did it humanely,” says McDowell. Several seconds pass as he continues to work on the chute. Seeing my inquisitive look, he sighs, and inclines his head toward the bumper of this truck, where a large claw hammer sits.
“The claw hammer?!”
“You just wait till the customer looks away and then, pop! Takes ’em right out—they don’t feel a thing.”
He finishes the chute, which is impressively crafted, and screws it over the hole in the roof. He then secures pieces of sheet metal over any other holes in the roof, so the raccoons can’t get back in by another route. Then he moves the ladder to a nearby tree that overhangs the house; this is how the raccoons access the roof. He climbs up as I hold the ladder and begins sawing protruding branches. As I’m standing there, a cluster of mushrooms around the base of the tree catches my eye. They look very much like psychedelic mushrooms, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps just a nibble. I bend over to examine them, and a branch the thickness of my arm crashes down inches from my head.
“Watch your head!” McDowell shouts down helpfully.
We drag the branches onto a nearby brush pile. As I retrieve a limb from the yard next door, I notice that the roof of the adjacent house seems to be unfinished. The top is fine, but the underside is completely exposed—we’re looking right up into the peak of the house. This house, mind you, is attached to the raccoon house. When I point this out, McDowell nods.
“Yeah, the raccoons’ll just climb right up in there and go back to their nest. But those people aren’t paying me, so there’s nothing I can do about it.”
We walk down the alley, and McDowell points out various raccoon entry points on house after house. Holes in the brick façades, gutters in disrepair, exposed eaves. One house has dark yellow stains running down its side.
“That’s years of raccoon piss,” says McDowell. “They’ve been living in that house for quite a while. If you wanted to get all the raccoons out of this neighborhood, you’d have to go to every house and do serious repairs, remodeling, and patching. It’d be damn near impossible.”
Just as McDowell and I are wrapping up our raccoon call in Anacostia, another comes in. It’s a normal day—perhaps even a bit slow. He gets 20 to 30 calls a day from people with wildlife problems, and in the spring, when mother raccoons are nursing their young, his phone rings from sunup to sundown. Our next call is across town. A guy near Kalorama and Connecticut woke up to find a large raccoon sleeping on his back stoop, and wants it out of there. McDowell says he’ll be right over.
Soon we’re speeding up North Capitol. McDowell gives me his bio as we go. When he started out, trapping a groundhog was $35. Now it’s 10 times that, and he can typically handle six calls a day. He’s trained several guys in the area who are now in business for themselves doing animal extraction, but they’re all friendly with one another. There’s more than enough work to go around, and besides, he doesn’t want to be driving a van back and forth across the city every day for the rest of his life.
He’s trying to build an empire, a network of animal extraction experts in every county in every state across the country. He’s got twin boys at home, so he wants to work less, not more. He also wants to star in a television show about his job. I have to admit, he’s charismatic enough to maybe pull it off, what with his fearlessness on the job and nonstop banter, and he seems telegenic. He’ll be 42 in December but could pass for late 20s, though his conversational oeuvre skews even younger.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asks me after a lag in the conversation.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Does she have big…ol’…tit-tays?”
When we get to the next call, a Sidney Lumet type in houseslippers answers the door. The raccoon is out back, he says, at the bottom of a flight of concrete stairs sleeping under a grate. We get a trap out of the truck and a choke pole, a length of pipe with a double loop of cable through it. The noose at one end is placed ever so carefully around the neck of the offending animal and then slowly tightened until the animal is under the pole wielder’s control, at which point the animal either resigns itself to the situation and goes cooperatively into the cage, or, more likely, goes completely motherfucking apeshit.
We tiptoe halfway down the stairs as Sidney Lumet and his wife watch us through a nearby window. At the bottom I can see an alarmingly large gray-brown animal curled up, one paw covering its eyes against the midday sunlight. One generally thinks of raccoons as small, fuzzy cute creatures, like a cat or even a rodent, but in fact they are in the bear family. Up close a raccoon looks more like a wolverine than anything else, a compact, powerful animal with long arms, muscular shoulders, and creepily anthropomorphous hands.
“You better get back,” says McDowell, dead-serious all of a sudden. “This could get pretty chaotic if he resists, or tries to bolt.”
I retreat to the top of the stairs. McDowell goes to the bottom and, with infinite care and patience, extends the noose toward the head of the sleeping raccoon. As I watch this unfold, it occurs to me that Sidney Lumet could’ve just banged a couple pots together and scared the raccoon away—calling someone to come over and lasso the sleeping animal, rabid or not, strikes me as a bit ridiculous, like a grown man who can’t do his own laundry.
Just when it seems like McDowell might take the raccoon without a struggle, it jolts awake and emits a sound that I can only describe as soul-shriveling, a combination growl/roar that brings to mind Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Somewhat involuntarily, I scamper back behind some lawn furniture. To his credit, McDowell doesn’t deviate from the plan, inching the noose over the raccoon’s head even as it spits and howls demonically. Finally, he pulls the noose tight, carries the writhing animal up the stairs at the end of the pole, and deposits it in a cage. Mrs. Lumet gives us a double thumbs-up through the window.
McDowell leaves the caged raccoon with me in the alley while he settles up. Its prime antagonist gone, the raccoon gazes up at me with large, watery eyes, made even more sorrowful by the characteristic black circles. I try to commiserate with him, but he’s already been burned once today and goes down into a miserable hunch. A couple of Hispanic workers doing renovations on the house next door come over to marvel at the large animal, and I make self-effacing gestures as if to say, “all in a day’s work, fellas.”
When McDowell gets back they all converse in Spanish (“¡Guano es muy mal!”), and it turns out the house they’re working in has a bat infestation. He takes their information and promises to return later in the week.
“See, jobs fall into my lap left and right in this city,” he says when we get in the van.
I ask him if he thinks the raccoon we—he—just caught is rabid. It seemed kind of aggressive, but then again, it was cornered. He shrugs.
“I dunno. To tell for sure, you have to cut its head off and test the brains in a laboratory. And I just get paid to take the animal away, not test it. So who really knows?”
In the back I can hear the possibly rabid but possibly not rabid raccoon scrabbling around in its cage. McDowell’s had his shots, but I haven’t. I pray the raccoon’s facility with latches and locks has been exaggerated.
Where exactly are the raccoons? The short answer is: everywhere. There is a ring of dense raccoon population around the District, from Northern Virginia to the Eastern tideland swamps to Maryland. In addition, Rock Creek Park, in the very center of the city, has the highest raccoon population density ever recorded anywhere. A report out of the Department of the Interior in 1998 found a mind-boggling 333 raccoons per square kilometer. If this were a military campaign, it would be an utter and complete victory for the raccoons: They’ve both surrounded us and captured the center. If you plot all the rabies incidents in D.C. on a map, there is no discernible pattern other than saturation.
Mike Fies, the Furbearer Project Leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says that “raccoons actually thrive on urbanization. This is the opposite of what happens with most wildlife populations that come into contact with humans. Raccoon populations in the D.C. area are actually increasing as development expands outward.”
And as the raccoon population increases, the portion of that population that carries rabies also increases, as does the threat to humans. What percentage of raccoons carries rabies is largely open to debate. The official figures say that about a third to a half of all raccoons tested for rabies test positive. But because the rabies test is costly and somewhat labor-intensive, the government tests only those that come into contact with people or pets, mostly through aggressive confrontations. (The District recently changed this policy to test all wildlife it sees, but the sample is still restricted to roadkill, nuisance animals, and other wildlife that draw enough attention to warrant a capture—i.e., the sample is still skewed to the abnormal.) So you might assume that the official figures are inflated, as most raccoons that attack people are probably rabid. But the opposite is probably true.
If, for example, an animal control officer in Arlington receives a call about a raccoon in a parking lot foaming at the mouth, and he subdues it without anyone being bitten, the raccoon is not tested, nor is it counted in the official rabies statistic, though it’s almost surely rabid. That happens quite often. Many animals also contract “dumb rabies” (rabies comes in two forms: furious, which results in violent behavior, and dumb, which causes the animal to become lethargic and, well, dumb). For obvious reasons, animals with dumb rabies are easily and uneventfully captured. Fies—and every animal control officer, forest ranger, epidemiologist I talked to—says that most sick animals handled by his department and others like it are not tested for rabies because they’re brought in without incident. The point here is that area animal control officers do their jobs well—and that rabies statistics are, if anything, underreported. “Obviously, the rabies rate is higher than what the numbers indicate,” says Fies.
Even when animals are tested, the results are disputable. The predominant rabies test—the direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) test—is really only effective in detecting rabies in its most advanced stage. The test uses a special microscope and fluorescent dye to detect rabies antigen in brain tissue. So a negative test result rules out only rabies infection in the brain. But months or even years can transpire between the time an animal contracts rabies and the time the rabies virus finally reaches the brain. Accordingly, some percentage of negative rabies tests are essentially false negatives—while the brain tested clean, the rabies virus was present in the rest of the animal, and it was only a matter of time before that particular animal went into full-on zombie mode.
Taking into account all these unreported cases of (highly probable) rabies, one could make an educated guess that a significant percentage of raccoons in the area—a majority is not out of question, as the virus can incubate for up to two years before inducing symptoms—are carrying rabies. The potential ramifications are staggering. Take Rock Creek Park as a test case. If there is an average of 200 raccoons per square kilometer (333 is the high, not the mean) in the park, and the park is 7 square kilometers, that means that there are around 1,400 raccoons in the park. If half of those have rabies, we’re talking about 700 highly intelligent, rabid little five-fingered creatures in the middle of a densely populated city, in a heavily trafficked park. While discussing the populations with rabies expert James Parkhurst, an associate professor of wildlife at Virginia Tech, I mentioned that if there really were that many rabid raccoons in Rock Creek, I could probably go into the park on any given night and observe them staggering around in packs, red-eyed and foaming at the mouth.
Parkhurst chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend doing that,” he said. “Rabid raccoons are dangerous enough, but there are coyotes in Rock Creek, you know. And they could be rabid, too!” (It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. In 2003, a man on a riding mower in New Kent County, Va., was attacked by a rabid coyote. Luckily he was able to fight the animal off long enough to run inside—the coyote chasing him—and grab his shotgun.)
For the past 10 years, the USDA has been dropping rabies vaccines into the countryside of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio in a successful effort to stop the westward spread of raccoon rabies. The vaccine, which is harmless to people and pets, is delivered inside small packets or blocks of fishmeal bait, a fragrant raccoon treat. This has been proven effective in bringing down the population of rabid raccoons, but D.C. hasn’t joined the surrounding areas in this program.
Ken Ferebee is a natural resource management specialist for the National Park Service—a forest ranger. He’s stationed in Rock Creek Park, and a big part of his job is handling sick animals. He’s encountered rabid raccoons and foxes in Rock Creek, though luckily only of the dumb rabies variety. “There’s been talk about baits in D.C.,” Ferebee says. “The big cheeses are the ones who’d make that decision—the Park Service, the Department of the Interior. But it hasn’t happened for some reason. I don’t know why.”
Money is one likely reason. Lack of foresight is another. Dr. Francois Elvinger is an associate professor of Veterinary Epidemology at Virginia Tech, and he oversaw the Fairfax County Oral Rabies Vaccination Pilot Program from its inception in 1999 to its cancellation in 2002.
Rabies had been a problem in Fairfax County for several years, but in 1997 and 1998 there were several highly visible rabid animal attacks in the county, including one involving a rabid fox running amok in a child’s backyard birthday party. Elvinger says this party was right by a county supervisor’s house, with the result that Fairfax public health officials suddenly became highly motivated to address their rabies epidemic. They called Elvinger, and he designed an oral vaccine bait program.
“I’m from Luxembourg, and they used this same method to eliminate rabies there,” he says in his Old World accent. In the latter part of the 19th century, raccoon fur was briefly fashionable in Europe, and raccoon farms sprung up across the continent, especially in Germany. During World War II, many of these farms sustained damage, and the raccoons escaped. With no natural predators to check their population, raccoons soon overran the countryside and, especially, the cities. Today the raccoon invasion has gotten so bad that the German government pays hunters for each raccoon they cull, and many buildings have electric anti-raccoon fences. For many years rabies was a serious problem across central Europe, but oral vaccine baiting programs there have slowly brought the infection rate to near zero.
Elvinger modeled his program on the success in Europe, using ground crews to spread baits in parks and urban areas and helicopter drops to reach isolated wooded areas. “Surveys indicated that we were reaching a little over half the raccoons each year,” says Elvinger. “I have no doubt that we would’ve greatly reduced the number of rabies cases in Fairfax county. Had we been allowed to continue.”
Elvinger says that after 9/11, funding for his program was abruptly cut off and other priorities apparently emerged (Fairfax being such a high-value target for al-Qaeda…). Distributing the baits throughout Fairfax County would’ve cost about $300,000 to $400,000 a year, Elvinger estimates, but the county government wouldn’t cough it up.
“A shame, because there’s so much money in that area,” says Elvinger. His tone as he tells this story of his aborted program isn’t bitter; on the contrary, he seems bemused by this display of typical American shortsighted half-assery.
In 2003, only a year after the elimination of Elvinger’s program, Fairfax County resident Edward P. Hurley III became the first person in the United States to die of raccoon rabies. He was 25 years old.