When Kanawha County Park Police Officer James Butler heard strange sounds coming from a Coonskin Park dumpster Tuesday, he dutifully peeked inside to see what was going on.
He wasn’t expecting a once-in-a-lifetime animal sighting.
An albino raccoon was among five young raccoons that had found themselves stranded Tuesday evening inside the dumpster in a maintenance area where they had been scavenging for food. Butler said he heard the creatures crying and was stunned when he saw the white raccoon.
“The dumpster had apparently been emptied and the garbage level was low and the raccoons couldn’t reach the top to get back out,” Butler said.
Butler placed a piece of wood inside the dumpster to allow the raccoons to climb out. He snapped a close-up photo of the albino, which has light-yellow eyes, white fur and a very faint mask and stripes. The skin on its nose and ears is pink, not black, because the lack of skin pigmentation allows blood vessels to show through the skin.
Albinism is caused by a genetic mutation that can affect the production of melanin, the pigment that gives skin, hair and eyes their color. Albino animals typically exhibit white fur or feathers, pink skin and red eyes.
Few people will ever see an albino animal in the wild; in fact, the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife estimates only about 1 in 750,000 wild raccoons are albino.
Chris Ryan, supervisor of Game Management Services for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said he has heard “very few” reports of wild albino raccoons in West Virginia. He said albino deer are seen more often because they are more active during the day, but that any albino animal sighting is rare.
“I think obviously albino deer, more than anything, once somebody finds one locally, the word gets around and people may want to try to see it,” Ryan said.
Rodney Jones, chief of Kanawha’s Park Police Department, said he first spotted the albino raccoon about two weeks ago. He said he believes the raccoons live along the Elk River in the vicinity of the new Coonskin Park bridge, an area that is closed to the public. Once the bridge opens, Jones said, visitors might be able to spot the white raccoon from the bridge.
“Actually, it used to be a well-kept secret but, now that the albino’s getting publicity, I figure people will start looking to see if they can find it around the park,” Jones said. “They mainly hang out around the river bank and around the dumpsters that are in the maintenance area. We haven’t seen them in the park,”
Jones said that even though the albino raccoon might look cute, people should avoid getting near it or feeding it, because its bite could transmit diseases such as rabies. He said visitors who want to try to spot the rare raccoon from a safe distance will have the best chance during the evening hours, when raccoons are more likely to be active.
“We try to tell people with animals to keep their distance and don’t try to feed them,” Jones said. “I’d really hate to see an animal like that be destroyed because of someone’s curiosity or stupidity.”
Coonskin Park, located north of Charleston, is open daily from dawn to dusk.