published Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Kinkajou bite sends Chattanooga teen to hospital for 6 days

A kinkajou reaches his neck out for a grape to eat inside of the exhibit at the Chattanooga Zoo. Kinkajous, commonly referred to as a honey bear, originate from rain forests in Central and South America.
A kinkajou reaches his neck out for a grape to eat inside of the exhibit at the Chattanooga Zoo. Kinkajous, commonly referred to as a honey bear, originate from rain forests in Central and South America.
Photo by Jenna Walker.
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KINKAJOU FACTS

* Kinkajous are the Procyonidae family, along with raccoons and coatis, and are native to Central and South America.

* Kinkajous are omnivores, eating mainly plants, fruits and bugs.

* They have long tongues to collect nectar, and a fully prehensile tail that acts as a "fifth hand."

* They have long life spans, living up to 40 years.

Source: Chattanooga Zoo

When Jada Thurmond showed up at the emergency room complaining of stabbing stomach pain Sept. 18, the doctors treated her for a virus and sent her home.

By the next morning, the 16-year-old was battling a fever of 102, suffering severe headaches and urinating blood. Her mother rushed her to Children's Hospital at Erlanger.

That's when Thurmond told her mother and doctors about the kinkajou bite. To which everyone replied, "Kinka-what?"

"I had never heard of the animal, and neither had the doctors," said Thurmond's mother, Miika Montgomery. "I was Googling it, they were Googling it. ... If it had been a dog or a cat or a raccoon they would have known exactly what to do, but they had never seen anything like this."

The kinkajou -- native to Central and South America -- is a rainforest-dwelling mammal related to the raccoon. With a mouselike face, catlike body and monkeylike tail, it's a perfect conglomeration of cuteness.

But it's a deceptive cuteness, animal experts say, that can quickly give way to sharp claws, canine teeth and nasty bites.

Thurmond was playing with her aunt's 6-week-old kinkajou when the animal sank its teeth into her hand. She felt ill within 24 hours and was hospitalized for six days.

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In their research, Montgomery said she and doctors found out that kinkajous carry a unique bacteria called Kingella potus, discovered only six years ago.

Doctors gave Thurmond a tetanus shot and antibiotics, which brought down her fever and healed her gastrointestinal tract.

Montgomery hopes her daughter has made a full recovery. But she's still looking for answers, and has filed a police report to document the incident.

The girl's aunt, Stephanie James, had bought the creature from a breeder in Florida when it was just two weeks old, Montgomery said. And there was no restriction against keeping the animal in her home.

"Since Tennessee has such a vague exotic-pet law when it comes to those small animals, it's not necessarily legal to keep the animals -- but it's not illegal, either," said Montgomery, who works at the Hamilton County Health Department.

Tennessee law classifies some species as "inherently dangerous" and requires owners to get permits from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

But kinkajous don't explicitly fall under any of the categories that encompass other exotic animals, like monkeys or wild cats.

"Kinkajous are not specifically listed in any of the classes," said Tom Womack, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "However, I believe it would be considered a Class III animal, which is exempt from permitting except as determined by our agency."

Womack said any wild animal brought into Tennessee must have a health certificate verifying it has been inspected by a licensed veterinarian.

The Chattanooga Zoo has three kinkajous on exhibit, two of which are more than 20 years old. They're nocturnal, but when they are awake they're energetic -- climbing, leaping, barking and playing with their food.

"They look supercuddly, but they're not cats," said zoo Executive Director Darde Long. "Wild animals and exotic animals have special needs, and it's difficult to replicate those."

Nevertheless, kinkajous have become a hot item in the last decade, fueled in part by Internet sales, Long said.

They gained even more notoriety when hotel heiress Paris Hilton adopted her kinkajou "Baby Luv" in 2005. The animal bit her in the leg a year later, according to The Associated Press.

"Even with the nicest-natured wild animals, that moment just happens," Long said. "And [the kinkajou's] sharp teeth and claws -- which save them from predators in the rain forest -- can do some real damage to a person."

Montgomery says she wants stricter laws for exotic animal ownership.

"I think you should have to be licensed for a pet like that," she said. "That bite took over her body. If it bit somebody else, it could do more damage."

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