Dan Murphy: Students Watch Raccoons Die

Raccoons are the center of a controversy in Florida. ( freeimages.com )

Officials with the Marion County Public Schools, where the Forest High School involved in this story is located, said they are investigating an incident in which a teacher drowned two racoons during his agriculture class.

According to a story on Orlando.com, the teacher is currently on paid administrative leave, and the district superintendent has recommended that he be terminated.

The mother of one of the students in the class was quoted in the story saying that her son “came home in tears over what happened to the animals.” She said her son reported that the teacher said the racoons were killing chickens the class was raising.

“It made me sick to my stomach,” the story quoted the woman. “It’s terrible.”

As the proverbial cellphone video showed (see it here), a raccoon was in a wire trap. The teacher and students then placed the animal into a garbage bin and filled it with water from several hoses.

Then it got a little gruesome.

“Why is he not fighting?” one person in the video said as the raccoon sits in the trap while the bin fills to the top with water.

According to the mother, when the raccoons tried to come up for air, the students used metal rods to hold them down and aimed water hoses in their faces to drown them.

A spokesman from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the agency is investigating how the raccoons were killed and will decide if criminal charges should be filed.

Whether or not that’s appropriate, let’s step back a moment and consider the bigger picture.

It’s Not Whether, but How They Died
Even though the students were in an agriculture class — in fact, precisely because it’s an ag class — this was not an appropriate activity to share with young students. Yes, racoons will prey on chickens, but that’s why students should know how to construct and maintain a chicken coop that predators cannot easily access.

If a raccoon is egregiously killing chickens, the answer is to fix the enclosure so that can’t happen, not to trap an animal that’s only following its instincts and then drown it.

(By the way, although killing a predator on one’s property is not illegal in Florida, it appears that drowning one may be against the law. In November 2017, a Lake County, Florida, man was arrested on animal cruelty charges after he allegedly took a caged raccoon onto his pontoon boat and dropped the cage into the water).

The comments from readers who accessed the Orlando.com story were instructive.

  • “I can't believe that no students intervened to stop it,” one commenter wrote. “I would have went (sic) bonkers. Unbelievable.” No, it’s totally believable that 16-years-olds would be reluctant to get in a teacher’s face. Heck, most adults would have stood by silently, even if they disapproved.
  • “Either relocate [the racoon] or shoot it in the head,” another commenter wrote. “To cause unnecessary suffering is intolerable, disgusting, and really makes you wonder who is teaching our children.” Shooting might be incrementally more humane (although indisputably bloodier), but it would be equally inappropriate to conduct such a killing in front of a class of high schoolers.
  • “How many other animals did this idiot kill in front of children? This time he was caught on cam. How [about] the other times?” Extremely doubtful such incidents could have gone on earlier — and only now somebody pulled out a cellphone? That’s an adult talking, one who has no idea how many photos and videos teen-agers upload from their phones on an hourly basis.
  • “Is it legal to kill rats? cows? chickens? pigs? goats? turkeys? coyotes?” an angry poster wrote. “Is it legal to kill a dog if it’s hurting your livestock? Is it legal to kill wild deer, hogs, raccoons, crows, etc., if they are harming your crops? After all, the article says this IS an agriculture class. Most of the posters are apparently Disney dimwits.” Yes — you can kill livestock and/or certain wildlife without legal recrimination. But an ag class ought to be providing lessons in stewardship, in balancing crop production with protection of wildlife habitat, not teaching students that farmers are endowed with the agricultural equivalent of James Bond’s license to kill.

We already live in a society where less than 2% of Americans reside on working farms or ranches, and a majority of the other 98% believe we don’t need animal agriculture at all. They’re not “Disney dimwits,” they’re people reacting to the endless tide of media coverage and online commentary postulating that no animal ever needs to die for everyone on Earth to have all the food and nutrition they’ll ever need.

The last thing anyone who supports animal husbandry needs is an ag teacher shamelessly drowning racoons in front of impressionable young people.

Are there better alternatives to protect the chickens those students were presumably learning to raise?

There'd better be, or all of agriculture’s in serious trouble.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.