Is this zombie raccoon coming to your neighborhood?

Zombie raccoons are plaguing Northeast Ohio.

That's the message from reports out of Youngstown, where police have responded to calls about fourteen raccoons behaving strangely during daylight hours. The raccoons have been spotted walking on two legs, twitching their arms, and falling backwards.  

One of the raccoons happened to amble into the yard of Robert Coggeshall, a photographer who, after getting his dogs to safety, shared dozens of photos:

Some of the photos show the raccoon with fangs bared. Other photos, depicting the standing raccoon with arms outstretched, would look at home in the Thriller video's dance sequence. [I cannot believe that this is the only version that exists -- some enterprising YouTuber should get to work.] In still other photos, the raccoon is downright adorable, laying down and peeking around corners.

The collection of photos makes clear that the sick raccoon may be victim of some bad branding. 

Because Coggeshall was both the photographer and the subject of the story, we have the benefit of looking at his entire collection of photos and comparing the set to the single image chosen for most of the news coverage. It's clear that the snarling photo was chosen for maximum terror.

Are the images of raccoons shuffling and twitching any less terrifying? Not necessarily, but knowing that the images don't match the news should make you start to ask other questions, like:

Where do our news pictures come from?

Much of the coverage of Youngstown's zombie raccoons used just one of Coggeshall's photos. Looking at the full collection of photos gives us a more accurate sense of how the raccoon was behaving: strangely, for sure, but not particularly menacing to the adult taking pictures of it. 

Some of the zombie raccoon coverage used this photo of a teeth-baring raccoon. The message of both photos is clear: these are hostile, dangerous, creatures to be feared.

We should fear the photos more than the raccoons. 

If the photo accompanying a news article is keeping you awake at night or making you terrified to leave your house in the daytime, you owe it to yourself to figure out where that image came from. If you can download the image from an article (I generally right-click and select "save image as"), you can then upload the image to Google's reverse image search

Such a search could show you that a single raccoon has been making headlines for nearly a decade. It led to a city-wide search in 2010 after a man it bit evaded health authorities in Washington D.C. In 2014 it was on the loose in Berks County, Pennsylvania and East Haven, Connecticut. In June 2017, it attacked a woman jogging in a Maine forest. Earlier that year it attacked a dog in Georgia. Both attacks were surprising, This raccoon may really be a zombie, as in 2017 it was both drowned and felled with a hammer. That's after it was strangled to death by a 75-year old woman in 2015.

Why is this single raccoon the recipient of so much press attention? He's available for download from Getty Images, a stock photography service. Photographer Alan Vernon uploaded the raccoon in 2009, making him available for a modest fee to any writer or news organization in need of a terrifying raccoon photo.

Vernon's caption suggests that the raccoon may have been unfairly maligned all these years: he dubbed it a "raccoon with attitude," not a "rabid raccoon" as it is so often used. We don't know the circumstances under which the photo was taken, but we do know that it grabs our attention and makes us afraid of raccoons both distempered and rabid, which leads us to another question...

How dangerous are raccoons?

According to most of the zombie raccoon coverage, not very. The disease the raccoons are carrying--aptly called distemper--is not communicable to humans. It is, however, often fatal to dogs, which is why the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends vaccination against distemper

One detail of the news coverage out of Youngstown sticks out: these raccoons were out in the daytime, which for most people doesn't signal distemper but rabies. There are a few problems with the "daylight = rabies" logic:

First, it's common for raccoons to be out during the day. Many raccoon moms are up when they should be sleeping because they're out getting food for babies. Other raccoons have just learned when the good food appears in trashcans or dumpsters and orient their schedules around it. 

Second, even though raccoons are common carriers of rabies (the Humane Society estimates that raccoons make up 35% of all animal rabies cases), we're scapegoating the wrong species. There has been exactly one case of human death from a rabid raccoon in the United States. If you're looking to blame rabies carriers, look to bats, which make up a larger proportion of the three rabies deaths that occur each year. 

Third, even if raccoons were transmitting rabies left and right, rabies is generally not a death sentence. According to the CDC, 40,000 people receive post-exposure treatment for rabies each year. The practice guideline is to treat anyone who may have come into contact with a rabid animal, so it's likely that some of those 40,000 people were rabies-negative. Still, it's clear that death from rabies is relatively rare. 

So to recap: distemper is not a danger to humans, and probably not to dogs (as long as they're vaccinated). Rabies is a danger to humans, but it's both rare and treatable. (Rabies is a danger to dogs, too, which again why they're vaccinated). On the whole, raccoons are probably being unfairly maligned in our media coverage, which leads us to the most important question: 

How influential are the photos we see in the news? 

Is a zombie raccoon likely to be terrorizing you soon? Coggeshall's certainly isn't, because it was euthanized shortly after he photographed it. Vernon's would have to be one exceptional raccoon, as raccoons tend to live 2-3 years in the wild.

But the image of the terrifying raccoon will live a lot longer, subtly influencing your attitudes and behaviors.