Wild animals are beautiful, majestic, important, sentient, and, sometimes, really freaking gross. So let’s talk about one of the most horrifying examples of what can happen when you don’t give wild animals the space and respect they deserve: brain worms!
70-90% of raccoons carry a roundworm in their guts called Baylisascaris procyonis, but that’s a mouthful, so most rehabbers and vets just call it “Baylis,” “raccoon roundworm,” or, “that brain worm none of us want.” Baylis is completely harmless in raccoons, but when humans ingest the eggs of this parasite, it actually migrates out of the digestive system and infects other parts of our bodies, including our brains.
A brain full of roundworms is every bit as bad as it sounds. It can cause paralysis, mental deterioration, pain, and death. Even the most prompt and aggressive treatments for Baylis usually leave sufferers with long-term disabilities.
This isn’t a reason to hate, fear, or harm raccoons. All living organisms, including humans and our pets, are capable of hosting and spreading diseases, and your odds of getting sick from simply living near a raccoon are near zero. However, you’re at risk for Baylis (and many other diseases!) if you hunt, trap, or handle raccoons, if you bring a raccoon into your home as a pet, or if you feed raccoons and encourage them to unnaturally overpopulate an area and use your yard as a latrine (communal toilet).
Everyone would like to think that they’re too hygiene-savvy for this to happen to themselves, but case reports show that it’s easier to accidentally ingest raccoon poo than you might think. One particularly tragic case of Baylis involved a toddler who contracted the parasite after handling pelts that his father— a hunter— had left in the garage. Almost any pet owner is also at risk for at least occasionally coming into contact with poop without immediately washing their hands.
Baylisascaris procyonis is one of many reasons that you’ll never see us handling raccoons bare-handed. Close contact with wild animals always involves some amount of risk, and we feel we have a responsibility to stay safe and to promote public awareness of the dangers of handling wild animals.
Again, please don’t harm raccoons simply for being raccoons. Your poop is full of yucky germs, too! But do respect that raccoons and other native animals can cause disease if you don’t exercise healthy caution and respect toward them and their habitats.