The cautionary tale of a baby raccoon being kept as a pet and shared freely with the public has not had a happy ending.

Fortunately, no one was injured but it did cost the life of the animal.

The story begins on Valentine’s Day, when Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Investigator John Conlin learned from the county health department that two people had been exhibiting an apparently tame raccoon to visitors in front of the Tapas Bar in Apalachicola.

After meeting with health department officials the following day, Conlin interviewed Clayman Coughlin, 34, who confirmed that he was keeping a roughly five-month-old pet raccoon in his camper. He said he had obtained the raccoon from a property owner on St. George Island, after it was rescued from the Plantation, and that it stayed with him in the camper, or in a small animal crate.

Coughlin told Conlin that he was in the process of trying to obtain a permit for the raccoon. While there are such permits for a wild-caught raccoon, they are limited to wildlife rehabilitation entities such as the Florida Wild Mammal Association that can establish they are meeting a list of feeding and housing requirements. Otherwise, fox, skunks, bats, raccoons, or whitetail deer taken from the wild cannot be possessed as personal use wildlife

Coughlin surrendered the animal to FWC and was issued a citation for possessing a Class III animal (see sidebar) without a permit. The citation notes that there is a schedulled courthouse appearance Wednesday, March 18 at 3 p.m. before County Judge Gordon Shuler, but that has been changed to later in April.

FWC transferred the animal to the care of the county health department, which ordered the animal be tested for rabies. This required that it be euthanized, and its brain tissue sent to a lab. The results came back negative.

On Feb. 21, the county health department had issued an alert to county residents and visitors, making them aware a wild-caught raccoon was being kept as a pet, and had been exposed to numerous people.

“There is no licensed rabies vaccine for raccoons,” said Sarah Hinds, administrator of the health departments here and in Gulf County. “Walking around with a raccoon in public gives the false impression that the ‘owner’ has taken the necessary steps to permit this animal and that the animal is safe.

“Raccoons are considered one of the highest-risk animals for rabies infection in Florida,” she said. “Rabid animals can be healthy-appearing during early stages of the disease but still infect people or other animals.”

Hinds said her department urges residents to avoid contact with wild and stray animals to protect themselves from the risk of rabies exposure. “Do not handle, feed or unintentionally attract wild animals,” she said. “Never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home. Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if they appear friendly.”

In the event of a bite by either a wild or domestic animal, people are advised to wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and go to a doctor or hospital promptly for medical attention.

“There is no consistently effective treatment for people who wait to seek care after symptoms of rabies develop, and nearly 100 percent of people who become ill from rabies die,” said DT Simmons, a spokeswoman for the department.

For more information, contact the Florida Department of Health in Franklin County at 653-2111.