This time of year, it's very common around here to see young raccoons wandering about. It's also still pretty common to hear about people keeping a litter of baby raccoons in their house. I can understand the appeal - they're cute and entertaining. However, in addition to being illegal in many regions, handling young raccoons also poses a risk of exposure to a variety of infectious diseases.
Chief among the infectious disease risks of handling young raccoons is rabies, as a Walker County, Alabama, family found out. Two baby racoons were found in someone's attic, and another two littermates were found a little while later. The person who found them gave two each to two separate people. As is often the case, they were handled by many different individuals before one of the raccoon kits was found to be rabid. Now more than 20 people are facing post-exposure treatment. It's one of the larger reported exposures from a single rabid raccoon, but it's far from unprecedented.
Beyond the obvious public health concern, this situation demonstrates another possible issue. Rabies is sporadically distributed in some regions, and moving wild animals around leads to the potential for dissemination of rabies, as well as other infectious diseases. Raccoon rabies is present in the area where the baby raccoons were found, but has not been found in Walker County, even though it's not far away. If the rabid raccoon had escaped (or was released), it could have potentially spread rabies into an area where it's currently not well established, thereby increasing the risk of exposure to everyone (animals and people) in the county.
As mentioned above, it's also illegal to harbour wildlife in many regions if you are not a licensed rehabilitation facility. While getting fined seems to be uncommon, four people in this incident have been charged with unlawful possession of a protected animal. Just one more reason not to do this.
While baby raccoons may have some appeal, as Alabama's state veterinarian Dee Jones says, "...people just need to stay away from them."