Dozens of raccoons affected by 'zombie virus' in NYC parks

CENTRAL PARK, New York (WPIX) -- The disturbing sight of raccoons confused, shaking, losing their coordination, becoming aggressive or unconscious is becoming common in one of the city’s most popular parks.

The raccoon population has skyrocketed city-wide and now the Parks and Health departments are advising dog owners to keep their dogs leashed. That’s because 85 sick or dead raccoons have been collected by Park Rangers. They are suffering from the so-called “Zombie virus.”

"They’re not prepared for this kind of deluge of sick raccoons,” said Dr. Babette Gladstein, a veterinarian who practices integrative medicine. “It’s really unprecedented.”

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Dr. Gladstein says the city needs to do more to contain this outbreak of distemper. The virus was first discovered in June. She walks her dog Punky every day in Central Park – where the outbreak appears to be centered.

“People being people, they don’t know that these are wild animals,” said Dr. Gladstein. “Raccoons have teeth and claws.”

Distemper has no effect on humans, but it can be spread to unvaccinated dogs.

Dr. Gladstein says just as much of a concern are other viruses raccoons may carry like roundworms. Diseases spread through contact with infected feces.

In the past two days alone, there have been incidents of raccoons biting or scratching humans as they walked their dogs.

“Seventy percent of the raccoon population statistically have roundworms,” said Dr. Gladstein. “The dog is an intermediate host of the roundworms those roundworms are far more devastating to us than they are to the dogs. The raccoons’ fecal matter could be shedding these roundworm eggs and those eggs can stay on the ground, in the grass anywhere and if you’re not a lucky person and you happen to touch your face accidentally, you could definitely be affected.”

The Health department says none of the raccoons tested positive for rabies.

Dog owners PIX11 spoke with were surprised by the advisory the city put out Thursday warning owners to keep their dogs on leash.

Dr. Gladstein says more needs to be done – the Parks Department should put up signs.

She’s getting the word out to her clients and the public.

“Don’t pet it; don’t try to take pictures of it; don’t antagonize it. Just leave it alone,” said Dr. Gladstein. “They shouldn’t touch these animals and they shouldn’t pet them and they shouldn’t let their dogs near them because they are sick, they can shed different disease patterns both to their dog and themselves.”

The Parks Department says if you see or encounter a sick or injured raccoon, call 311 to report it and ask for a Park Ranger.

Here's the advisory from the Parks Department:

NYC Parks and Health Department, in relation to the distemper outbreak affecting raccoons in Central Park, today issued an advisory strongly recommending that visiting dogs be kept on leashes. The two agencies are specifically concerned about dogs in the park during dusk and dawn, off-leash hours, after two incidents where dogs had encounters with raccoons. Parks and Health have been working in coordination since raccoons in the park first tested positive for the virus. Distemper does not cause a threat to humans, but unvaccinated dogs and other wildlife can be affected.

To date, 85 sick or dead raccoons have been collected by NYC Park Rangers. None of the collected raccoons submitted for testing have been positive for rabies.

If the public sees a sick or injured raccoon they are asked to call 311 and request the NYC Parks Rangers to address.

Central Park off-leash hours are from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.; park hours are from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.

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