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From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2012

Many of us at the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County were perplexed last November when director of animal protective services Ilka Daniel brought in an odd-looking creature. She and animal control officer Bruce Dangerfield received a call to rescue the animal from a nearby dumpster. The problem was that nobody could explain what kind of animal they’d been called out to help.

When staff looked over Ilka’s furless find, they weren’t sure how to record the animal on intake. What should they put for “species”? Programs like Chameleon and PetPoint don’t offer “alien” as an option.

Some people joked that Ilka had captured a “chupacabra.” From the Spanish chupar (to suck) and cabra meaning “goat,” mythological goat-suckers hail from the same netherworld as Big Foot, Yeti, and the Loch Ness Monster. If your shelter has been hoping to encourage indoor pets and responsible livestock care, chupacabra lore may help—the creatures supposedly prey upon cats, dogs, and farm animals, drink their blood, then leave them for dead. Legend has it that when they’re really hungry, people aren’t safe, either. Sightings of the goat-sucking ghouls with big eyes and spikes down their backs have been reported from Puerto Rico up to Maine and along the Texas-Mexico border.

As word of Ilka’s “chupacabra” spread through the shelter, staff and volunteers ran outside to investigate and offer up (un)educated guesses. Freakish feline? Odd opossum? Armor-less armadillo? Volunteer Sherry Shively thought he might even be some kind of prehistoric beast.

He seemed more fearful than fearsome and didn’t have any spikes, but his eyes were quite big. Ilka was pretty sure he was far less nefarious than a chupacabra. “Look at his anatomy,” she suggested. Keeping us all in suspense, the only other clue she provided was that he’s an animal “we see every day.”

It turned out that Ilka’s mystery critter wasn’t very mysterious at all. She hadn’t captured a monster, alien, or prehistoric beast. Not even a chupacabra, as we all had secretly hoped.

He was just a hairless raccoon.

No one is certain how he lost his fur. Theories include genetic mutation, disease, malnutrition, or perhaps an autoimmune disorder. When staff searched the Internet using the keywords “hairless raccoon,” photos of similar-looking animals popped up. We transported him to a wildlife sanctuary where they agreed with Ilka’s judgment of Procyon lotor: raccoon.

Few people can imagine how a raccoon might look in the buff, yet each of us (eventually) had an “Aha!” moment. Assistant animal care director Robyn Krajewski said his front paws gave him away. Adoption supervisor Alisha Zaleuke recalled the shape of his tail. For me, it was how he moved.

Once our story hit the news, Ilka made it a point to explain that just because we don’t understand something doesn’t make it paranormal. “People may jump to conclusions when they see animals like this raccoon, and may even be frightened,” she remarked, adding that careful observation of an animal’s body and behavior can usually provide a logical, less amazing explanation.

About the Author

Janet Winikoff is the director of education for the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County. She shares her home with husband Mike, cats Momma, Tony and Trouble, and dog Nala.