Killing of Raccoon by Springfield, MA, Fire Commissioner Defended

Feb. 29, 2024
The possibly rabid critter foaming at the mouth met its demise under Springfield Fire Commissioner Bernard J. Calvi's SUV.

Namu Sampath


SPRINGFIELD — When a raccoon loped over to the Springfield Fire Department headquarters on Worthington Street on Feb. 21, officials said it was wandering in circles and foaming at the mouth — signs that it was possibly infected with rabies.

This was no call for a conflagration or a cat caught in a tree.

Nevertheless, the city’s top fire official responded, raising questions about whether the city has a rabies response plan in place, how suspected rabid animals are euthanized in Springfield and if the city properly disposes of rabies-infected carcasses.

Springfield Fire Commissioner Bernard J. Calvi made a judgment call that day when he drove his city-issued black Chevy Traverse over the raccoon, after deciding that it was infected with the dreaded disease, said Capt. Drew Piemonte, Fire Department spokesperson.

Rabies only can be confirmed, however, by removing the head of the suspected animal and shipping its brain tissue for testing at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain.

Generally, if people come into contact with a potentially sick or injured wild animal, the rule of thumb is to call the police, so that an officer can assess the situation, said Springfield Police Department spokesperson Ryan Walsh.

If there is an imminent danger to the public, police officers can euthanize the animal with their service weapons, as long as “it is safe to do so with no passing cars or bystanders in the line of fire,” said Walsh.

Imminent threat to public

In the case last Wednesday, Calvi believed there was an imminent threat, Walsh said.

It turns out that city police dispatchers had started fielding calls regarding a sick raccoon in the area on Feb. 19, Walsh said. Piemonte said the Fire Department started getting calls about the potentially rabid raccoon near fire headquarters around 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 21.

Calvi called the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center, prior to killing the raccoon, but city animal control only deals with domesticated or feral animals, like dogs and cats, Piemonte said.

Walsh also said that Calvi called police dispatch, asking for officer assistance with the raccoon that day. He said that the police were not dispatched until Feb. 21, as another unnamed animal control agency was contacted instead. Walsh said police records did not specify which animal control agency was called.

At around 1:30 p.m., Calvi notified the Department of Public Works about the rabid raccoon, before ultimately killing the animal himself with his department SUV.

No action plan in the city?

Cities and towns across the state are encouraged to have a point person or an action plan for dealing with rabies-infected animals — depending on what resources are available, according to Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife regulations.

Local boards of health are in charge of working with municipal officials to educate them about the protocols.

A search of city ordinances by The Republican, meanwhile, yielded no specific wording related to rabid wild animals or the euthanizing of rabid animals.

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno’s office could not be reached for a comment on the incident, on whether the city has a formal action plan or whether this incident will change how Springfield approaches incidents like this.

Likewise, the Animal Control and Adoption Center and the city’s Department of Health and Human Services could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Proper protocols not followed

MassWildlife regulations state that, if a municipal officer kills a raccoon or other wildlife, the brain must be preserved to test whether the animal has rabies. Piemonte said the Springfield raccoon was disposed of through the Department of Public Works, and that the raccoon’s head was not collected for testing.

Reached earlier this week, the animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wasn’t pleased to hear about how the raccoon was run over by the fire commissioner.

The raccoon was “made to suffer needlessly, crushed beneath a vehicle’s tires — something unconscionable in this day and age, when veterinarians and humane societies could have put the animal down painlessly,” said Catie Cryar, a PETA spokesperson.

PETA is an organization famed for condemning the ill treatment of animals, most recently targeting its public relations muscle on a University of Massachusetts Amherst lab for its testing on marmoset monkeys.

In an email to The Republican, Cryar “urges Springfield officials to establish proper protocols in order to ensure that wildlife is always treated humanely and, if necessary, euthanized with care and consideration.”

5,000 positive rabies tests since ‘92

Since 1992, more than 5,000 animals have tested positive for rabies in Massachusetts, according to the state. Rabies can be passed on to and from any mammal through bites and scratches.

Raccoons are the predominant carrier for the disease, said Emily Stolarski, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Any raccoon that bites or scratches a person or their pet should be considered rabid, Stolarski said.

If a pet or a person is bitten or scratched by a raccoon, the state advises to wash the wound with soap and water right away for 10 minutes, and to contact the local board of health or the Department of Public Health.

Scott Jackson, an extension professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation, said it’s best when humans limit their direct contact with wild creatures.

‘Alarm signals’

“If humans interact with wild animals, the animals will lose their fear of people, which could increase the risk of animals harming or infecting us,” said Jackson.

Jackson noted that raccoons carry two diseases that can be harmful: canine distemper, which can’t transfer to humans, but can to other animals, like pets, and rabies.

“The alarm signals on if a raccoon is suffering from rabies is that it is frothing at the mouth, disoriented in its appearance, and/or walking in circles,” Jackson told The Republican. “If someone sees a raccoon doing this, stay away.”

The state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife regulations encourage people to not kill animals during the day that are known to be nocturnal, such as raccoons, unless they show signs of rabid behavior.

This story has corrected text that had been erroneously attributed in an earlier version to Springfield Police Department spokesman Ryan Walsh.

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