At least 176 raccoons living in New York’s Central Park have died as the result of a virus that makes them behave like “zombies.” According to the Independent, the critters were infected with the canine distemper virus, which can affect both raccoons and unvaccinated dogs but doesn’t spread to humans. Once infected, the raccoons start to act in unusual ways. They will sometimes behave as though they are tame, or will appear confused. Later, they may lose coordination or become aggressive. Eventually, sick raccoons will fall unconscious and often die.
“They looked like they were circulating, wandering, having spasms. Some of the raccoons had some sort of nasal discharge.” Dr. Sally Slavinski, assistant director at the New York Health Department, told the New York Post.
The first sick raccoon was identified on June 24. Because the disease can be fatal to dogs, pet owners are being advised to keep their dogs on a leash to prevent them from contracting or spreading the disease. Canine distemper can be spread when susceptible animals come in contact with feces, urine or saliva from an infected animal. Beyond dogs and raccoons, the virus can also be spread to skunks, coyotes, foxes, and ferrets.
“Now I’m freaked out. Holy moly! He sees a raccoon once a week, and he goes nuts after it. Now I’ll have to be careful where I let him go,” a local resident told the New York Post.
The last infected raccoon was located on September 7, but until a month has passed without new cases, the outbreak is considered active. The Parks Department said that authorities are continuing to monitor the epidemic.
“While the collection of sick raccoons has slowed in Central Park, the outbreak has not yet been deemed ended,” Kelly Krause, a spokesperson for the Parks Department said.
Authorities with the Parks Department have been humanely euthanizing any sick raccoons. When they are located, Park staffers will quarantine the animal, trap it, and humanely euthanize it.
The virus has also been identified in raccoons outside of Central Park. Three raccoons in the Bronx were recently infected as well. Pelham Bay Park authorities found raccoons in the park’s dog run, BBQ area and children’s playground between August 18 and September 13. Authorities don’t believe that the two outbreaks are related, however.
A disoriented raccoon was also located in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park recently, but testing hasn’t been completed to determine whether or not the animal was suffering from distemper.