One might associate raccoons as being suburban or rural creatures, but New York City has encountered a raccoon problem of its own.
According to the city health department, from January 6, 2010 to January 28, 2010, there were 23 rabid raccoon sightings. Most of the sightings occurred near Central Park but one was sighted on East 100th Street and Lexington Avenue. In 2009, only four rabid raccoons were sighted in Manhattan for the entire year.
Rabid raccoon sightings while relatively common in the Bronx or Staten Island, have been historically rare in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, according to the health department.
Eugene Ulitsky was walking his dog, an American cocker spaniel, near West 93rd Street and Central Park West, one spot where a rabid raccoon was sighted. Ulitsky says he sees raccoons all the time along the bike path at night.
"They're not really scared of humans,” said Ulitsky. “They're willing to come towards you and they're bigger than my dog."
Officials from the New York City Health Department have warned pet owners to be especially cautious. They are advising owners to keep their pets on leashes, not to leave them unattended and to make sure their rabies vaccinations are up to date. It is also helpful to know how to spot a rabid animal.
“Most raccoons do not want to have anything to do with people, they’re busy going through garbage and that is the extent of it.” said Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“But if you have a raccoon that is deliberately approaching people or is lying somewhere and not moving very much or is twitching or has paralyzed rear legs,” he continued, “These would be examples of abnormal behaviors that would make it suspect for having rabies."
You can protect yourself by not touching or feeding wild animals, keep garbage in tightly sealed containers, and stay away from animals that behave aggressively or appear to be ill.
If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, the health department says you should wash the wound with lots of soap and water before seeking medical care. And then call the city’s 311 hotline.
In recent months, raccoons have been popping up in the most unlikely places. On January 29, 2010 just before 9 p.m., a raccoon walked right past the lobby doors of a Manhattan high-rise apartment on East 40th Street and Second Avenue.
And on the website YouTube.com, people are posting their own raccoon encounters, including one woman’s raccoon sighting on a subway platform. She captures a raccoon walking fearlessly towards her, hop onto a bench, and then into a garbage can to forage for food.
The city health department is also cautioning New Yorkers to stay away from skunks, bats, stray dogs and cats that can carry rabies. The recent cluster of findings they say, suggests that rabies is being transmitted among raccoons in the park.
To combat this problem, the city is increasing surveillance to determine the extent of the problem and also encouraging New Yorkers to report raccoon sightings by calling the city’s 311 hotline.