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Weeki Wachee animals killed for rabies test

Two raccoonlike animals were exterminated Wednesday as a precaution against rabies after one of them attacked a boy at Weeki Wachee Spring on Saturday.

A spokesman for the attraction and the director of Hernando County Animal Control said killing the two coati-mundi and examining their brains for the disease was the only sure way to determine whether they were infected.

But the extermination was done against the advice of the Hernando County Humane Society and the environmental health director of the Hernando County Health Department.

"Human life is not worth taking a chance on," animal control director Jim Varn said in defense of the extermination, which he conducted.

The brains of the coati-mundi were sent to a laboratory in Tampa, where they will be tested for the rabies virus, he said. The results will not be available for at least a day, said Dan Wilson, a spokesman for Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp., the attraction's parent company.

But Ron Butler, the county Health Department environmental health director, said he didn't think the exterminations were necessary. "I think the attraction decided to do it from a liability standpoint," he said.

Butler said there is almost no chance the animals carried the virus. They never were directly exposed to the wild. Though the rabies virus has been known to be transported through the air, that usually happens only in confined areas such as caves, he said.

"It is a very rare situation," he said. He added that the parents of the boy, whose name and age he did not release, were willing to give the child the series of shots to protect him against the disease. Rabies shots once required a long series of shots in the abdomen, but now require only five and can be given in the arm, Butler said.

Wilson said that the parents had earlier asked that the animals be exterminated. He also said that other agencies, including the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, had recommended it.

Though Weeki Wachee's liability question was a factor in the decision, it was not the main one, he said. "The bottom line is that as long as there is even a remote chance, we're not willing to take a chance on the life of a child."

The animals were enclosed in a cage of wire fencing material. The cage is set back from the public behind a split-rail fence that has signs posted warning that the animals might bite. Wilson said it had not been determined whether the boy had been bitten or scratched Saturday.

Though Wilson did not know specifics of the attack, he did say that one of the two animals had bitten or scratched another person several months ago and that the coati-mundi had just been released from quarantine.

Wilson said, and Butler agreed, that the release did not necessarily mean that neither of the two animals had the disease, because so little is known about the way it spreads in raccoons and similar species.

The coati-mundi are slightly longer than raccoons and have a longer, more flexible snout, said Harriet Martin of the Humane Society.

"They were probably uncomfortable and probably felt threatened when the young child approached," she said. "So whose fault was it?"