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Ronnie and Donna Lee were loading up their 5- and 6-year-old grandkids into the truck, ready to go to church Sunday, when the little girls noticed something strange hiding high in the carport.
“Both the girls asked, ‘What’s that thing in the carport?,'” Mr. Lee said.
Believing the girls were just messing around, he told them to get in the truck and get their seat belts on.
Then he saw it.
A bronze-furred creature was perched high in the corner of the carport. It stared down at them with large, round black eyes. A little purple-pink nose quivered the air. Round, bear-like ears stuck out of the sides of its head. Claws like little knives held the creature in place, and a prehensile monkey-like tail dangled down between the carport and the nearby house.
“I thought it was a cat at first,” Mr. Lee said. “Then my wife ran around and got closer to it and thought it was a monkey.”
“I noticed it had a long tail,” Mrs. Lee said. “I’ve never seen anything like that except in a zoo or something.”
Unsure what to do or what it was, they asked their neighbors, who volunteer at the Wise County Animal Shelter, to come check it out. They also called the Sheriff’s Office.
“I looked at it through my binoculars from about 20 feet away and saw it had long, sharp teeth,” Mr. Lee said.
Soon Deputy James O’Bannon arrived to help corral the creature.
“(O’Bannon) said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I want it!'” Mr. Lee recalled. “He said he had a special pair of hefty gloves, and there’s no way the teeth would puncture it. He grabbed hold of it, and the teeth went right through the gloves.”
“It bit into his hand and left three puncture wounds,” said Sheriff David Walker.
O’Bannon went to the hospital but suffered no serious injuries from the bite and was soon released.
“At one point you had me (67), and my wife, who is 62 and disabled, my two neighbors who are 80 and 78, and a deputy, chasing this thing around.”
When O’Bannon grabbed the creature a second time, he quickly placed it in a cage without injury to himself or the animal. The animal was taken to Wise County Animal Shelter where it was identified as a kinkajou.
“It’s also called a honeybear,” said Linda Bryan, animal services administrator at the shelter. “It’s kin to the raccoon.”
The kinkajou is definitely not native to Wise County. It’s a nocturnal animal that lives high in the canopy of tropical rain forest in Central and South America, not carports located outside homes on County 4213 a few miles southeast of Decatur. They feed on fruits, termites and sometimes small animals. They can also unfurl a long pink tongue, like a diminutive Gene Simmons, to lap the nectar out of large tropical flowers.
It’s illegal to possess kinkajous or any other wild animal in Wise County.
By Monday afternoon the little guy was trying to adjust to his home in the shelter, munching on some strawberries placed in his cage.
“It’s an intact male,” Bryan said. “And looking at his teeth he looks like he has some age on him.”
Bryan thinks he might have been part of an illegal kinkajou breeding operation in the area where it was found. The babies sell for $2,500 to $3,500 each to people interested in owning exotic pets. It’s unknown where the animal came from, if it escaped or was let loose on purpose by its previous owner.
Bryan said because the kinkajou bit someone they have to keep him quarantined for 30 days. She plans to find a home for him in a sanctuary.
“I really hope they find a sanctuary for it,” Mr. Lee said. “It’s a shame people bring an animal into a country where it’s not meant to be. This animal isn’t able to live in this type of climate. Maybe the Gainesville Zoo will take it.”
Until then, the honey bear is one-of-a-kind at the shelter.