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Norwich Bulletin - 2/27/2005

Search And Rescue - Raccoons?

My husband and I spent New Years weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we met fellow cat enthusiasts and rescue people. The most colorful and fun person we met was a Veterinarian, Sandra Grant, who specializes in exotic animals. She also trains Coatimundis for Search and Rescue!

I had a hard time believing that this creature from the wild could be trained to find missing humans and so, it was voted that I, of little faith, would become the lost person. It was late and dark and I was left alone amongst some trees (everyone promised me that it was too cold for snakes) and I waited. Sandie had taken my watch so that her adult male Coati, Ru, could catch my scent.

It didn't take long before I had this long snouted rather strange looking animal sniffing all over me and making little squeaking noises, letting his handler know that he had found his victim. His reward was his favorite treat, peppermints.

So just what is a Coatimundi, and who would ever think of training them for search and rescue?

A Coatimundi is a relative of and about the same size as a very large raccoon. They do have much more distinct characteristics though that puts them eons apart from what we are used to seeing. They have a long, shovel-shaped snout and their tail can measure 25 to 30 inches in length. Full-grown males usually weigh 12 to 20 pounds, with females somewhat smaller.

The Coati is a quick, intelligent and tough animal. They are what is known as a Procyonid (same family as raccoons, kinkajous and ringtails). However, they are different in that they are not nocturnal, but diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day and night, and actually can be more active during the day. They are very nosy and, like their raccoon kin, they are great scavengers.

Out in the wild, the male prefers to travel alone while the females and their young tend to stick together in bands that can number up to 50! They are very social animals and very vocal, with an entire dialogue of snorts, grunts, screams, whines and chatters. They groom each other, forage for food, can swim and climb trees - they are a very versatile animals. They are omnivorous which means they will eat almost anything from mice, rats, insects and worms, to fruits and seeds and, as evidenced by Ru, peppermints!

There are four different types of Coatis, with the white-nosed variety being owned by most private homes. This type tends to be a little bigger and have a more gentle personality overall. As long as they are well socialized and trained, I am told that Coatis make very nice house pets that can be leash and litter box trained! The two Coatis that I met in Raleigh share their home with several cats.

So that is the general background on the Coatimundi. Now to Sandra Grant. She graduated from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1994. Her first love is cats but she has a special interest in exotics. She is the only vet in the states of North and South Carolina and Virginia to see Primates and pretty much the only vet at this time that will consistently see Coatis. She works closely with a local breeder of exotic animals and Ru came to live with her in 2001, followed by Cheyenne, a year later.

When Sandie lost her search and rescue canine, she decided to try an experiment. Since Coatis do not have much scent of their own, they "take" the scent of the person they are next too - they have an excellent nose and Sandie thought this would be a great animal for search and rescue.

She began training in the same way she trained her dogs (only positive reinforcement training) and found the Coati to be very receptive to the training and work involved in finding people. Her older Coati has been trained to find living people and her younger Coati, Cheyenne, is being trained in cadaver search. Sandie figured what better animal than a scavenger to find non living humans?

I believe it is not legal to own a Coati in the State of Connecticut, or, at the very least, a license would have to be gotten. But it seems that it is easier to own exotic animals in the south, which allowed Clint and I to have this unusual experience. For more information on the Coatimundi in general, you can write to Doctor Sandra Grant, Lake Wheeler Veterinary Hospital, 2720-105 Lake Wheeler Road, Raleigh, North Carolina 27603.

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