Lawyer who shooed raccoon off boat 'had a world of options' say experts

Instead of letting the animal drown, he could have captured it with a fishing net or an ice chest, or at least contacted state wildlife officials for advice, they said
Published May 22
Updated May 23

Clearwater lawyer Thomas W. Cope was 20 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico when the raccoon popped out of its hiding place.

What Cope did next — shooing the raccoon off his boat, so that it most likely drowned, then posting video of the incident on social media — has landed him in a lot of hot water. He's now under investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Bar.

Cope has now apologized for chasing the animal away with a cry of "So long, sucker!" — adding that what he did was "the only realistic option we could think of in the moment."

But did he have other options? The answer, according to experts, is yes.

"Cope and whoever was in the boat with him had a world of options, including radioing to the Florida Wildlife Commission for advice if he needed it — or going on Facebook, sending out text messages, etc., to find other potential advisors," said Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals 24-7, a nonprofit online newspaper and information service that focuses on humane animal treatment.

Clifton, who said he watched Cope's video several times with his wife Beth, a former Miami Beach police officer who dealt with stray animals on her beat, recommended using a long-handled fishing net, an ice chest or even a cardboard box to capture the animal. Once caught, he said, Cope could have locked it in the boat's cabin until he could return it to shore.

"A cardboard box is not ideal, but once the raccoon feels safe, underneath and in darkness, the raccoon will tend to keep quiet, not try to escape," he said.

A blast or two from a fire extinguisher — required equipment on every motor boat — can also be used to herd a stray animal into a confined space temporarily, he said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Although the Cliftons recommended calling the Wildlife Commission for advice, a commission spokeswoman declined to comment on what Cope could have done differently. But other boaters had suggestions.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Florida Fisheries Foundation, said there was no reason to kill the animal if it didn't attack any humans.

"As a Southern boy taught to eat whatever I kill, I would have tried to shoo the raccoon into the fish box if possible," Jones said. "If all the poor critter did was poo poo on the boat that would not rise to a killing offense. However, if the raccoon attacked the Captain of the ship, maritime legal precedents would have to be considered."

Captain Kenneth Piesnikowski of St. Pete Beach Charters said he'd never confronted a situation like that before — but if he did, "I just would've turned around and headed for shore."

Not everyone was so sympathetic to the stowaway, however. One charter boat captain agreed with Cope's approach — except for one step.

"Anybody would've done the same thing," said Terry Daniel of Speed Boat Adventures, a charter boat operation in St. Pete Beach. "He just shouldn't have filmed it."

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.