Myth Busters

One of the purposes of our educational programs is to dispel the many myths out there about many of the animals that we all live around every day in the wild here in North Carolina. These are just a few of the biggest myths we've heard during some of our programs and talking to others, sometimes including professionals in the health care industry.

Please note: We HIGHLY discourage walking up to any wild animal!!! If you see one in need, please call a professional who has the experience to take care of it properly. For that matter, we highly discourage you from walking up to ANY animal that you do not know personally.

  1. Skunks are nocturnal.

    WRONG! We've heard this one even taught by "animal professionals". Skunks are what is called crepuscular, this means their most active time is at dawn and dusk.

  2. Opossums sleep upside down, hanging from their tails.

    WRONG! This myth has been mostly spread by all the cute cartoons we see of opossums hanging upside down by their tails. Opossums' tails are actually not totally prehensile and they really cannot hold their own body weight by their tail for very long at all. Opossums' tails are mostly prehensile and used to gather leaves and twigs to help build their nests as well as to have their babies hold on to them after they leave the pouch, but before they are ready to leave mom.

  3. Skunks are mustelids, a member of the weasel family.

    WRONG! Skunks are actually in the family Mephitis and have been for at least seven years now. You can read more about how this came to be on The Dragoo Institute site, this is one of the leading experts on skunks.

  4. Because you have an animal who is extinct in the wild or endangered in the wild, you are contributing to their endangered status in the wild.

    All of the animals that we have here were born from captive parents who were born from captive parents. Most have been so many generations in captivity that they would not know how to survive in the wild if they were released there. Many would not even have a habitat to go back to if we did want to release them. Breeding them in captivity actually helps eliminate the quest for poachers in their native lands.

  5. A rabies vector species (raccoon, skunk, fox, bat) seen during the day means it has rabies.

    WRONG! While most of these species are not often seen during the day, a daytime sighting does not necessarily mean rabies. In fact it is not uncommon to see them out during the day during fall and spring seasons. In the fall, they are preparing for a long hard winter when food is scarce, so they are "packing on" all of the weight that they can, in case their body needs to live off of its own fat. In the spring, they have just come out of a winter with little food and are preparing for babies, so they are scavenging as much as possible to put that weight back on that they've lost and to have enough to feed their young.

    The problem with rabies is that, most of the symptoms often attributed to rabies, can also be attributed to other diseases or just hunger, making it impossible to tell on sight if an animal is rabid. The best way to avoid rabies is just to avoid coming into contact with wild animals and have all of your pets vaccinated.

    On a side note, rabies vector species are defined as those with a variant of rabies named after them. These are raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats and dogs. The difference is dogs are vaccinated, so we don't have to worry about them usually.

  6. "I saw a rabid raccoon", this statement is almost always followed by the person saying they knew it was rabid because it was out during the daytime.

    It is impossible to tell if an animal actually has rabies without a rabies test, the most common test used is called the "direct fluorescent test" (dFA), which requires that a cross section of the brain tissue from the animal be tested post-mortem (after the animal is dead). Though, we strongly suggest staying away from any wild animal that you see, because it could have rabies or just hurt you based on their natural ability to fight and do harm.

  7. "I saw a rabid opossum"

    This is highly unlikely. While not impossible, as any mammal can contract the virus, opossums rarely contract rabies due to their body temperature being so low. And again, it is impossible to tell by looking at an animal whether or not that animal has rabies.

  8. Raccoons "carry" rabies.

    WRONG! While raccoons, like any other mammal can CONTRACT several variants of the rabies virus, no "carrier" of rabies has ever been found. To "carry" a disease means that an animal can walk around with the disease in their body, passing it on to others, but never getting sick themselves. To date, all tests show that any animal who contracts the disease becomes ill from it within a maximum of 12 weeks from the time they were exposed to the virus and dies within 10 days of becoming ill. It is within that 10 day period of time that the animal is contagious and can pass the disease through a bite, this is called "shedding" the disease. To learn more about rabies, please see the CDC's site on "The Natural History of Rabies", the CDC is the leading authority on this disease.

  9. Opossums, squirrels, skunks and raccoons are nuisance species and serve no useful purpose in our environment.

    While some of these animals may cause inconveniences to some humans by doing things like getting into their trashcans or eating the food that the humans leave outside for their pets, each one of these animals serves a very important purpose in our ecosystem. Squirrels are responsible for planting many of the seeds that enable many of the trees to grow. All the of the other species listed above are scavengers and actually clean up our environment, eating things like carrion and trash.

    If you don't want these animals in your trash or eating your pet's food, don't leave it out. All are opportunistic feeders, if they see free food, they figure a new restaurant has opened in town and they are quite willing to patronize it.

  10. A baby deer laying out in a field alone must be in need of help.

    Usually wrong. Mother deer do not stay with their babies during the day, they come back several times a day to feed. As long as the baby's head is up, it seems alert, and there are not flies buzzing around it, please leave the deer where it is without touching it.

  11. If a baby animal is touched by humans, the mother will smell the human scent on it and kill it.

    WRONG! This is a very old myth, usually spread about birds, which we find particularly amusing as most birds in this country cannot smell. Other mothers may smell the human scent on their babies and immediately give them a thorough cleaning, but they won't kill them. This can be true of captive bred animals but is actually very rare in wild animals!

  12. De-clawing and de-fanging will make an exotic animal (or any animal) "easy" to live with and control.

    WRONG! Both the USDA and the American Veterinary Association have come out with statements against these practices as being inhumane. They also do not make the animals safe to live with, they only give the owners and others a false sense of security. We helped with a surgery to try to fix what a declawing did to a tiger at a local facility. View those pictures, and that story, on this page. Mutilating an animal is not the answer. If you cannot live with an animal in its natural state, then don't get the animal.

Rabies Facts

Rabies is a disease that needs to be respected and understood. There is a lot of misinformation out there about this virus. Rabies is a highly preventable disease. If you are bitten by either a wild animal, or a domestic animal that you are not certain has been vaccinated, please wash the wound thoroughly and seek medical attention immediately. Post exposure vaccines will prevent a human from contracting the disease. As stated above, any animal (including humans) who actually contract the disease will die from it. Though, for the first time in history, a little girl was actually saved after contracting the disease in 2004, by being put into a medically induced coma. This does not mean that a cure has yet been found, but it is good news.

Consider this: Approximately 45,000 to 60,000 people die worldwide each year from rabies. However, in the United States, between 1990 and 2000 31 people died of rabies, of those 31, 8 were from the dog variant of rabies and 22 from the bat variant of rabies. Why is the incidents of rabies in humans so much lower in the United States? Because of the laws enforcing our pets to be vaccinated, some rabies vaccine baiting programs on raccoons in the wild and the post exposure (PEP) vaccinations given to people who have been bitten and are considered at risk of contracting the disease. The cost of rabies control to the United States runs approximately $300 million each year. (this data is from the CDC's website and can be checked there at the link provided above).

Worldwide, domestic animals and feral dogs and cats are the primary reservoirs for rabies, however, because of very aggressive vaccination programs in the United States, wildlife are the primary reservoirs for rabies here. Hopefully, more vaccines will be found and more bait programs can be undergone to reduce the risk of rabies in the United States even more.

Please, get all of your pets vaccinated for rabies. It is not only the law now, it is also for their safety as well as yours and your family's.

Interesting Fact

Did you know that common house cats, which actually are an exotic /introduced/invasive species, since they are not native to North America, but were introduced here, are recognized world wide as one of the leading causes of ecosystem imbalance? Due to their nature, and the speed with which they multiply once introduced into a new area, they have caused more damage to more ecosystems then any other introduced species of animal.

Once introduced, it is typical for them to be kept as indoor/outdoor pets, breed, overpopulate and create colonies of feral cats. These colonies, and even the pets, then prey on local, native wildlife, sometimes with devastating effects. In Australia alone, they have been responsible for the reduction in population and even extinction of countless species of animals. Just look at what they helped do to the Brush-tailed Bettongs.

Also, due to their colony living nature, they tend to carry and transmit more diseases then just about any other animal on the planet. Cats, whether pets or feral, walk through people's back yards, where their kids or other pets play and pick up diseases left their by these cats. They are also notorious for attacking family pets to fight for food, especially food kept outside, these attacks cause bites and scratches, which can pass on many diseases. They have even been documented by the World Health Organization as being able to contract Avian Influenza. It is not yet known if this is one of the diseases that they can pass on though. To view the diseases that cats commonly carry and pass on, see CDC's webpage "Diseases from Cats".

Because cats are a commonly accepted pet, these facts are little known, and people are encouraged to help feral cat populations through feeding and other means all the time. While every member of CLAWS has domestic cats as pets, and love them very much, we consider encouraging people to feed and trap feral cats on their own, without giving them the proper information and training to be irresponsible at best. As with any species, we do encourage every pet owner to get their cats spayed and neutered, to help curb this ever-growing problem.

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