In the days before online video, a long-bearded man dancing with his pet raccoon to Aretha Franklin on his porch in rural Tennessee would have gone unnoticed, just one weird blissful moment in a world full of them. But Mark “Coonrippy” Brown’s clip (above) of him dancing with his four-legged companion Gunshow has gone viral viral since he posted it in July 2012, racking up more than 1 million views on YouTube and attracting so much attention it was featured on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America, which are like YouTube for old people.
It got some not-so-welcome attention, however—according to Coonrippy, the video became so popular that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) decided to step in and confiscate his raccoon, Rebekah, in late July. (By this time, Gunshow had gone on to that great hollow tree in the sky, but Coonrippy had a new raccoon pet.) Rebakah was taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center, even though arguably all she needed to be “rehabilitated” from was having a decent life as part of a family. She even got to take showers:
Coonrippy, a former animal control officer who lives in Gallatin, isn’t taking this lying down. He’s launched something of a media offense, telling his raccoon-loving fans on Facebook and YouTube to call upon Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to free Rebekah and return her to him. He’s given interviews to all sorts of radio and TV stations, and his story of one man fighting the unfeeling law that stole his furry loved one has captured the imagination of the nearly 5,000 people who signed a petition at Change.org. (That petition wasn’t even started by Coonrippy, but by a stranger in California who heard about his cause.) It remains to be seen whether Haslam will pardon Rebekah, but this seems to be a clear-cut case of the government abusing its power and taking what it has no right to take. I recently spoke with Coonrippy on the phone while he was driving to an undisclosed location to take a much-needed break from the media.
VICE: What law did the TWRA accuse you of breaking, exactly? Is it illegal to keep raccoons as pets?
Mark “Coonrippy” Brown: You cannot keep any wildlife in captivity. But my argument with them was that if this is the case, then every elementary school and biology class in high school and college is in violation if they've got tadpoles in an aquarium or a garter snake, or even if a child brings a box turtle to show-and-tell.
They didn't care for that line of argument, it seems.
Well, they did say something along the lines of schools are in violation, but they're not going to do a walkaround in every school in Tennessee. But when you have a raccoon on your shoulder in the shower and you make a viral video, if you've already had one viral video under your belt, it kind of draws a little attention to yourself.
Do you have any other animals besides Rebekah?
We've got a couple of rabbits that we raise. They're out there in the yard somewhere. But I can't distinguish those from the other nine hanging around. We have a possum; his name is Henry. We throw food outside for him around eight or nine, and he'll show up and eat it.
We had another raccoon while I was an animal control officer. I got a phone call from the police department that said there was a rabid raccoon. When I got there, the raccoon was disoriented so I put him in a cage. I brought him home and got to looking at him, thought I'd give him something to drink, and put a bowl of water in his cage. I saw him drinking water, so I knew he could swallow—I knew he wasn't rabid. And then I put some scraps of food out there, and he ate them. After about 15 minutes later, we opened the door and let him out. He meandered off about a foot, then turned around, went right back into the cage, and continued eating. We named him John Boat. He's still out there somewhere; we used to see him quite often. I haven't seen him in a while, but I'm sure he's still out there.
So you have a special sort of feeling towards racoons?
Yeah, I've been called the raccoon whisperer. [_laughs_]
Has this been the case your whole life?
Well, I've had wild pets ever since I was able to go catch one. I had a skunk named Pepé Le Pew. I had a deer one time named Trophy—that was not a good name to give a buck deer... I had a hog one time with a broken leg, his name was Aesop, as in the fables. The list goes on and on. I had two squirrels named Heckle and Jeckle. I had an owl, a little screech owl named Mr. Bird—I come to find out he was Mrs. Bird. She flew off and had lots of babies. She used to come around all the time, but I haven't seen her lately. My place was pretty much a haven for wildlife. It still is.
But the whole story about Rebekah is a high school agriculture teacher had a chicken house project somewhere and there was a raccoon in there killing chickens. So she ordered two of his students to kill the raccoon. After they killed this raccoon they found out she had two babies. They called me because they knew I had a history of [looking after] orphaned animals.
The officials told me that if Rebekah is too domesticated, she'll more than likely be used as an educational tool at TWRA-hosted events. But she’ll be in captivity. And the other side is, if she is released back into the wild, then a $28 hunting license is all you need to go legally shoot her out of the top of a tree. You can have your coon dogs chase her through the woods. I protected her from both captivity and from being killed. But that's what weird: You can't get a permit to keep one, yet you can get a permit to kill one.
Was she like a pet when she was with you? Or did she come and go?
She could come and go as she pleased. But when she was there and we weren’t, we treated her no different than you would treat your house cat or your house dog. I had a mansion of a cage inside the house that she stayed in. It’s just like your dog—you keep them penned up so they don't chew your furniture up and crap all over the house while you're gone. Then when I come home we let her out and she did what she did. But she did use the litter box too, by the way.
Did you train her to do that?
Well yes and no. If you sense she needs to do her business and you set her in the litter box once or twice, she’ll always go back to the same place. With raccoons, once you get them using the bathroom in one place, they'll always go back to it.
Do you think people should not be allowed to keep raccoons generally?
Well yes and no. You know, we’ve got so many laws out there right now that it's actually pathetic. And this is the way it's always been. When there are not enough criminals, our government actually creates them. But I'm not saying everybody who wants a raccoon should go out and have one. I wouldn't recommend anyone having a raccoon, unless they know a little bit about the behavior of that animal. And I wouldn’t go out and try to domesticate a raccoon that was taken from its mother, or a month old, or two months old. You've got to imprint them. When they open their eyes [for the first time] and you're what they see, then that's where the imprint starts. But it's real hard to domesticate something that already knows what it is.
Hopefully no one who doesn’t have your expertise will go out and get a raccoon.
Yeah, you've got to have some experience. You've got to know what you're doing. You can't just raise it if you haven't a clue what to do. And I happen to know. It's just one of my areas of expertise. Some people are experts in electricity. Some people are experts at working on automobiles. Some people are experts at heart surgery. I happen to be an expert at whispering to 'coons, I guess.
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