WASHINGTON – Gina Chiarelli and her dog, an 11-year-old Maltese named Rocky, had just stepped onto the grass in the backyard of her east Vancouver home earlier this month when a raccoon charged at the pair and sank its teeth into Rocky’s head.
“We were there maybe four seconds, and all of a sudden,” she said, “a huge raccoon, bigger than my dog, came flying out from under the deck and grabbed my dog by his head with his jaws
She could not separate the raccoon from Rocky’s head for several minutes. But once the raccoon finally opened its mouth, in an instant, it began attacking Chiarelli – viciously biting her, scratching, locking on to the back of her legs. The attack went on for 15 minutes.
“It was like a whirling dervish just attacking me relentlessly,” she said. “There was blood all across the deck and all over the house. My pants were just soaked in blood, big huge holes in them. I seriously thought that animal was going to kill me. I really, really thought that he was going to kill me.”
It may be one of the more dramatic and violent raccoon attacks of the last several months, but it’s hardly an isolated incident. It’s just one of dozens reported nationwide in states including Virginia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana, Florida and New Jersey.
The attacks have been so frequent and unprovoked that it is raising shock and rabies fears about the seemingly adorably masked critters common in suburban communities all over the U.S.
Chiarelli called the incident “traumatizing and shocking.”
Her dog was hurt, but not nearly as severely as Chiarelli, who needed 10 stitches in three different areas, including a deep puncture wound on the inside of her thigh. She also received a tetanus shot.
The attack ended only after she was able to free herself from the raccoon’s clutches and vise-like mouth, allowing her to run, with her dog in hand, into the house, slamming the door behind her. She immediately called 9-1-1.
Two separate similar raccoon attacks were reported last week in Arlington, Virginia, just days apart. One woman required 87 stitches for her wounds and lost considerable blood before she could be treated. She too was accompanied by a dog. In this case, the dog was not attacked.
In the same town, different neighborhood, Greg Purcell was attacked by two raccoons.
“They were trying to get into the house as I was closing the door behind me,” Purcell said. “I was sort of shocked and stunned and in disbelief. Suddenly two raccoons attacked me. They were chewing on my legs and clawing at me.”
Purcell spent the day in the hospital. Since there was no way to determine whether the pair of raccoons were rabid, he began a series of painful rabies shots and received treatment for numerous scratches and bites.
Last month, Rachel Borch of Hope, Maine went for an innocent run in the woods near her home. She came back barefoot, bloody and screaming after drowning a rabid raccoon that sunk its teeth into her hand.
“I’ve never killed an animal with my bare hands,” Borch said. “I’m a vegetarian. It was self-defense.”
She had been warned by her brother about an odd-looking raccoon “sulking” in her yard before her run. Within minutes, she spotted what she described as “ferocious-looking raccoon” who charged at her with teeth bared. Within seconds, it stood at her feet.
“Imagine the Tasmanian devil,” she said.
Also, last month, in Henrico, Virginia, Brady Holmes reported a rabid raccoon crawled through his chimney, attacking a cat and biting a person inside.
Rabid raccoons were also reported in Pennsylvania in May, June and July. They were involved in fights with dogs, but not with humans. Though total rabies cases were not available for this year, state Department of Health officials said there were 404 reported across the state from January through July of 2016 – a 20 percent jump over the previous year.
Parts of Michigan are experiencing a significant outbreak of canine distemper among wild animals – mostly raccoons and foxes. Houghton, Mich., police said they have responded to more than 20 complaints of raccoons showing no fear of humans, walking in uncoordinated fashion, as if they were intoxicated.
Last year, the Upper Peninsula Wildlife Rehabilitation-Keweenaw nonprofit recorded no cases of distemper among the animals it helped. This year, more than half a dozen raccoons and foxes have come to the center exhibiting signs of the disease.
The good news is humans cannot get the canine distemper virus. But it can be passed on to dogs, and wild animals can infect dogs with the virus. There is no cure.
The virus affects an animal’s respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. It can be spread through the air (coughing or sneezing), or by shared food or water bowls, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Last month, a New Orleans man blamed a raccoon attack that caused him to undergo painful rabies injections after he and his dog were bitten by a raccoon.
“I went to the ER, got 14 shots over the course of the evening because it was aggressive and a rabies question, but thankfully the doctor said it’s not going to be a problem,” said Jonathan Pretus. “We took the dogs out. One of the raccoons came over the fence at the dogs, bit one of our dogs and bit my leg, as well.”
In Polk County, Florida, the sheriff’s department confirmed last month that a dead raccoon had tested positive for rabies in North Lakeland. A homeowner killed the raccoon after it attacked and severely injured his cat. The cat had to be euthanized. His dog, which had not been vaccinated for rabies was put on a 180-day quarantine and given a booster shot.
On May 31, Charlene Rice and her husband Giancarlo were taking a stroll near their Coral Springs, Florida, home with their 13-year-old daughter when a snarling raccoon attacked the teen, biting and latching on to her leg.
Since the raccoon could not be found, the girl had to undergo rabies treatments.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, when a human is bitten by an animal, at first there may not be any symptoms. But weeks, or even months after a bite, rabies can cause pain, fatigue, headaches, fever, and irritability. These are followed by seizures, hallucinations, and paralysis.
Rabies in humans is almost always fatal.
Last month a 14-year-old girl in Spring Lake, Mich., had surgery for facial reconstruction for a raccoon attack that resulted in her face being severely mauled. It was the most recent of a dozen surgeries she has had to endure.
In May, In Raleigh, North Carolina, a rabid raccoon attacked a dog that had been fully vaccinated. The raccoon later tested positive for rabies.
One of the most unusual recent attacks occurred last March when a rabid raccoon attacked a veterinarian and his cat.
Dr. Les Gerson was first alerted to the raccoon when he heard what he described as blood-curdling screams from his cat. When he went to save his pet, the raccoon immediately went straight after him.
“He got up and attacked me three times,” said Gerson. “Finally he was weak from rabies and he laid there and expired, died.” Both Gerson and his cat were treated with the anti-rabies shots.
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife warns of the potential for disease transmission from raccoons.
“Rabies is the greatest concern,” the department advises. “The eastern states, particularly the southeast and middle Atlantic regions, have the highest incidence of rabies in animals, though levels in the Midwest are very low. Although few U.S. residents get rabies from raccoons, people should be careful with raccoons that act abnormally.”