Until two weeks ago, Terrissa Evans would have said her family had five members: Herself and husband Tim, teens Kayland and Zachary, and a black-masked, 8-year-old waddling hunk of orphaned raccoon named Scooter.
“Oh, my gosh, she’s my baby,” said Evans, 40, of Seligman, Mo. They raised Scooter from the time she was a newborn cub.
Inside their home, the 20-plus-pound Scooter slept at the foot of the marital bed, watched television with the family and, having learned from the family cat, did her business in the litter box. Kayland, 17, and Zachary, soon to turn 16, have known the raccoon as their pet for half their lives.
But now, Scooter is gone — removed from the Evanses’ country home by agents from the Missouri Department of Conservation who argue that it is both unsafe and illegal under state law to confine a wild animal indoors as a pet.
Had the Evanses kept Scooter outside on their 30-acre farm all these years and, say, fed her on the porch, that would have been fine.
“If they don’t put it in the house, it is not confined,” said Larry Yamnitz, chief of the Conservation Department’s Protection Division. “If they put it in the house, it is confined. There is no law that allows them to have that raccoon.”
Around Seligman, a rural community just north of the Arkansas line, the case has spun into a minor controversy, one that turns on the question of what constitutes a pet as opposed to a pest.
Some worry that the raccoon, having never lived in the wild, will not survive if the Conservation Department releases her into nature. The Evanses have consulted a lawyer, contacted local media and prepared a petition aiming to save Scooter from that fate.
Emory Melton, the Evanses’ Cassville, Mo., attorney, said he is unsure whether the family has any recourse against the Conservation Department for taking the family raccoon.
“Under the conservation laws, I suspect they probably have a right to do that,” Melton said. “But, morally, it strikes me as a touch ridiculous.
“That raccoon has been with them for eight years. The only thing the Conservation Department can do is turn it out to the woods and, of course, it won’t live. It seems utterly ridiculous.”
But conservation officials said the law is clear, meant for both protection and prevention.
It is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $1,000 and a year in jail, to house a wild animal. The Evanses have not been fined or been charged, but the Department of Conservation has up to a year to do so, officials said.
They added that the department every year has to remove wild animals being kept as pets from people’s homes.
“We’ve had snapping turtles in bathtubs, snakes, raccoons, deer in the house, possums. Just about any animal you can name in Missouri, an agent, at one time or other, has removed it from a house,” said Danton Letterman, district supervisor for the southwest region of the department’s Protection Division.
Letterman said he recognizes the emotional nature of the issue.
“These are tough situations for everybody. It’s not fun for us, either,” he said. “A lot of times people will find a hurt animal. I understand the need to want to help. That is human nature, especially when they are injured or orphaned.”
Although the Conservation Department is charged with protecting wildlife, it also must consider human safety. Raccoons can carry distemper, rabies and giardia, a microbe responsible for gastrointestinal infections including dysentery.
Nor does the department want people injured in other ways.
“We have people every year attacked by raccoons,” Letterman said. “We had a lady who was feeding a raccoon on her porch. It ran up her arm and practically ripped off her ear.”
The Evanses insisted their raccoon never posed any danger.
“She is a very gentle and loving girl with not an ounce of meanness in her,” Terrissa Evans said in an email to The Star. “Our entire family is literally torn up over this ordeal. I have stayed up many nights crying about what is going on, scared for her as I don’t know where she is or how she is doing.”
Tim Evans, 43, who works in construction, discovered a litter of three cubs, one female and two male, when they were less than 2 weeks old. He was working in a barn across the state line in Arkansas when he found them abandoned under an old couch.
The Evanses maintain that an Arkansas conservation agent gave Tim Evans permission to take the cubs home, noting that they would otherwise die from lack of care.
So he did, transporting the cubs back to the family’s farm, where the Evanses also keep mules and horses and chickens. The family bottle-fed the cubs until they grew and finally released the two males into the wild after about 18 months when they became too ornery.
But Scooter, so-named because she walked poorly and scooted around the kitchen floor, was more docile, nuzzling up to the kids and their friends, smelling and licking their feet.
“She was kind of like my best friend,” Kayland said.
The Evanses don’t know how state officials found out about Scooter, although her presence was well-known to neighbors. Kayland displayed her prominently on her Facebook page.
In a recent column, Missouri wildlife writer Larry Dablemont took up the Evanses’ cause. A frequent critic of Conservation Department practices, Dablemont said taking Scooter from the Evanses is a case of overreaching.
“It is little more than taking power and using it against people in the wrong way,” Dablemont wrote. “It wasn’t necessary, it benefits no one!”
There is the law, he said, and then there is common sense.
“(I)t is also against the law to kill a copperhead in my lawn, or give a crappie I just caught to my little 8-year-old grandson to put on his stringer,” Dablemont wrote. “In the past month I have done both! If you shine a flashlight at a deer from your car window, it is illegal, known as ‘harassing wildlife.’ There are all sorts of things that the (department) can charge you with because they have some silly law from out in left field to support them.”
He suggests that the Evanses be allowed to have Scooter back under the agreement that they keep her as an outdoor pet. For now, Scooter is being kept in a cage on private property by an individual licensed to keep raccoons.
The Evanses would like to know Scooter is safe and be allowed to visit her.
“I cry a lot anymore with her gone,” Terrissa Evans said, “and will continue to cry until I get her back.”
Letterman of the Conservation Department said that, as it stands, there is no plan to place Scooter anywhere other than the outdoors.
“If there is one tough animal that can really adapt,” he said, “a raccoon’s one of them.”