Fate of ‘pet’ raccoon disputed

Larry Woody • Aug 29, 2017 at 8:30 AM

What happened to Rebekah the raccoon?

According to Gallatin resident Mark “Coonrippy” Brown, in 2013 his pet raccoon Rebekah was seized by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and euthanized. That’s not true, says the TWRA. The Agency says the raccoon was taken away – as required by state law -- and released unharmed.

“We don’t want folks to think we killed it,” says TWRA Communications Director Doug Markham.

That past controversy was reignited by a recent column I wrote for the Lebanon Democrat and Hartsville Vidette about a raccoon that frequently comes up on my deck searching for food. I wrote about feeding the raccoon bread, grapes, corn and watermelon, and how interesting it is to observe her behavior.

But, I said, I don’t consider her a ‘pet’ because she is free to come and go – she has a den in a tree behind my house – and pointed out that Tennessee law prohibits keeping any wild animal as a pet.

As an example I cited the famous case of Coonrippy and Rebekah.

Coonrippy – a one-time candidate for governor – attracted widespread attention by posting videos of him dancing and showering with the raccoon. Among the attention it attracted was that of the TWRA. An Agency officer came to Coonrippy’s home and took Rebekah away.

What happened next remains a matter of dispute.

In my column I said the raccoon was seized by the TWRA and released, which was my understanding at the time.

When Coonrippy read that account, however, he said it was inaccurate – he claimed Rebekah was euthanized by the TWRA. On numerous internet postings Coonrippy also claims the raccoon was euthanized by the Agency.

Coonrippy injected the issue into his political campaign. He said he collected over 60,000 signatures on a petition demanding the release of Rebekah and sent it to Gov. Bill Haslam, but Haslam failed to respond.

Coonrippy’s latest contention that the raccoon was euthanized was carried as a “correction” to my column in the Hartsville Vidette and the Lebanon Democrat. When TWRA officials saw it, they took issue. They said Coonrippy’s correction is not correct.

Communications Director Markham said, in an email: “That was a controversial story and we don’t want folks to think we killed it (Rebekah).”

Added Markham: “In Tennessee it is illegal for anyone to own or capture native wildlife. Sometimes folks get mad at us because we enforce the law, but it is dangerous to try to make pets out of wildlife, and it would be detrimental to wildlife if people constantly removed them from the wild.”

The TWRA’s concerns are supported by fact: wild animals – particularly raccoons – are known to carry diseases such as rabies which can be transmitted to humans through bites or scratches. And if owning wild animals were allowed, it would likely spark a commercial market that endangered such “cuddly” species as raccoons.

But emotion often clouds reality -- as shown by the ongoing controversy over the fate of Rebekah the raccoon.

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