A viral outbreak that causes “zombie” behavior has left more than two dozen raccoons in New York’s Central Park dead in recent weeks.
Officials from the city’s Health and Parks Departments revealed Saturday that at least 26 raccoons have died since the end of June, with two testing positive for distemper virus, the New York Post reported. The other 24 are also believed to be infected with the virus due to the close proximity of their deaths within such a brief time frame.
Although the distemper virus cannot be transmitted to humans, it can be contagious to dogs that have not been vaccinated. The most recent raccoon corpse was discovered on Saturday morning at East 106th Street and East Drive. Other living raccoons have been spotted exhibiting symptoms of the disease as well.
“They looked like they were circulating, wandering, having spasms,” Dr. Sally Slavinski, an assistant director at the Health Department, said, according to the New York paper. “Some of the raccoons had some sort of nasal discharge.”
According to PetMD, distemper can spread through the air as well as by direct or indirect contact. In dogs, the “major symptoms include high fever, reddened eyes, and a watery discharge from the nose and eyes.” As the virus persists, it can lead to anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, paralysis and fits of hysteria. If the animal’s immune system is weak, death can result within two to five weeks.
Raccoons with the disease may also act aggressively after first appearing tame. Initially, experts thought the deaths and strange behavior could be caused by rabies. However, after tests, this was ruled out. More samples were tested and revealed the distemper infection. Although humans are not at risk, dog owners were alarmed to learn of the outbreak.
“Now I’m freaked out. Holy moly!” Upper East Sider Bob Cucurullo, 40, told the New York Post as he walked his beagle terrier Charlie. “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.”
Raccoons have become a bit of a tourist attraction in Central Park in recent years. A 2016 article by The New York Times referenced a group of more than 20 raccoons that clustered most evenings on a path near the southeastern edge near 59th Street in Manhattan. Tourists and city residents would come to take selfies with the wild animals and offer them food.
However, a representative for the parks department warned in an email to the paper that people should never feed “raccoons or any wildlife” they might encounter. “Animals are best observed from a distance – it keeps both them and you safe,” they wrote.
The newspaper also reported that a large rabies outbreak infected the city’s racoon population in 2010, posing a potential threat to humans as well as pets. Several cases were also reported in 2015 and 2016.