At 85 and 4-foot-8, Sally Repsher isn’t afraid of taking on a rabid raccoon as she feeds the stray animals and wild beasts of Folly Beach.
Each day, Repsher steers her golf cart to sites near her East Erie Avenue home and drops food in bowls. Squirrels, cats, birds and raccoons come to forage.
The raccoons are partial to the dry dog food she sets out each night.
In the quarter century she has lived here, Repsher reckons that she has missed only three raccoon feedings: two nights when her son died and one after Hurricane Hugo.
Once, as Repsher made her rounds, a rabid raccoon latched onto her left thumb. She had to kill it, which saddened her.
But not as many masked faces have come begging on her stoop recently.
Last week, she saw only two each evening, not the usual 20. Her favorite hasn’t made its way through the pet door to eat from the dish of peanuts in the laundry room.
“As you can tell, I’m nuts because I don’t mind raccoons in my house,” she said. “But I like them, and I miss them.”
A deadly scourge of distemper, a viral infection whose symptoms resemble rabies, has decimated the raccoon population on the Edge of America, where the critters have long proliferated by frequenting residents’ rubbish cans.
For people like Repsher who enjoy their company, the epidemic is a shame. Other residents say it is nature’s way of keeping the raccoon community in check.
In the past two months, the Folly Beach Public Safety Department has fielded 38 calls about dead or sickened raccoons, Chief Dennis Brown said. The complaints are most prevalent on the city’s east side, and Brown encouraged residents to keep reporting the sightings.
“It’s been diagnosed as distemper, not rabies,” Brown said. “So it’s not a threat to people, but we’re concerned about their pets.”
The outbreaks have popped up every decade or so, according to Carol Linville, president of the Pet Helpers shelter and a Folly Beach resident. One after Hugo in 1989 and another in 2008 each wiped out about 90 percent of the population, she said.
Linville figures the quick recurrence of the disease — only five years since the last outbreak that killed about 80 raccoons — could be blamed on warmer winters. The cold usually kills viruses and other natural pests, such as fleas.
Infected raccoons often suffer from mucous buildup in the eyes, weight loss and shaky or slow movements, as if they were drunk.
Police officers brought one case to Linville’s home last weekend. A photograph shows the raccoon baring its teeth before the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control took custody of it for testing.
“It’s an aggressive virus, and it’s fatal,” said Linville, who feeds food scraps to the animals outside her Tabby Drive home overlooking the marsh. “Generally, it doesn’t transfer to pets, but as a virus mutates, you never know.”
Folly Beach, where the animals have easy access to prime marshland habitat and trash cans, has been ground zero for many distemper outbreaks of the past. But other neighborhoods in Dorchester County, Hanahan, Mount Pleasant and North Charleston have seen the problem this year.
Janet Kinser, president of the rescue agency Keeper of the Wild in St. George, said raccoons are affected by both canine and feline strains of distemper. But other species, such as otters, foxes and bobcats, have been hit.
Kinser encouraged pet owners to get their furry friends vaccinated. If raccoons get distemper, they’ll need to be humanely euthanized, she said. The disease is almost always fatal, and the death is painful.
“If you try to save one, you could lose hundreds,” Kinser said. “It breaks my heart, but it’s something that happens out in the wild.”
But for some Folly Beach residents, the outbreak is a blessing in disguise.Ray Stenstrom recently saw one of the nocturnal critters emerge from the woods as he worked outside his East Hudson Avenue home. It was daylight.
He once watched a mother and its babies form a conga line in his yard. They have worn a trail on his property that stretches from the marsh to the beach.
Stenstrom’s neighbor installed a tin roof because one burrowed through the shingles and gave birth in the attic. The house flooded when it rained.
“There’s been nothing to take them out since Hugo came through and drowned most of them,” Stenstrom said. “A little bubonic plague for raccoons is good. I’m sorry, but it’s part of the life cycle.”