HOPE, Maine — While jogging on a familiar, overgrown, wooded trail near her home on a recent warm afternoon, Rachel Borch thought to herself, “what a beautiful day.”
Little did she know she was about to be attacked by a rabid raccoon she would end up killing with her bare hands.
In the midst of appreciating the weather and scenery, she looked ahead and noticed a raccoon obstructing the narrow foot path, baring its tiny teeth.
Suddenly, it began “bounding” toward her, Borch recalled Wednesday afternoon during an interview at her home on Hatchet Mountain Road in Hope.
“I knew instantly it had to be rabid,” said Borch, who remembers ripping out her headphones and dropping her phone on the ground.
What felt like a split second later, the furry animal was at her feet. Borch said she was “dancing around it,” trying to figure out what to do.
“Imagine the Tasmanian devil,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
The path was too narrow for Borch to run past the raccoon, which had begun lunging at her. With adrenaline pumping, Borch suspended her disbelief.
“I knew it was going to bite me,” she said.
Figuring she would have the greatest ability to defend herself if she used her hands to hold it down, she decided that probably would be the best place for the aggressive animal to latch on.
The raccoon sank its teeth into Borch’s thumb and “wouldn’t let go.” Its paws were scratching her arms and legs wildly as Borch screamed and cried.
In a matter of seconds, Borch, who could not unhinge the raccoon’s jaw to shake it off her hand, noticed that when she had dropped her phone, it had fallen into a puddle in the path and was fully submerged.
“I didn’t think I could strangle [the raccoon] with my bare hands,” she remembers thinking, but holding it under the water might do the trick.
Connecting the dots quickly, Borch, then on her knees, dragged the still biting raccoon, which was scratching frantically at her hand and arms, into the puddle.
“With my thumb in its mouth, I just pushed its head down into the muck,” Borch said.
With the animal belly-up, she held its head under water. “It was still struggling and clawing at my arms. It wouldn’t let go of my thumb,” she said.
Borch said she held it there for what felt like an eternity until finally it stopped struggling and “its arms sort of of fell to the side, its chest still heaving really slowly.”
Hyperventilating and in hysterics, she pulled her thumb out of the raccoon’s mouth, “and then I just bolted as fast as I could through the underbrush,” she said.
Borch remembers looking back once to see if the raccoon had started chasing her again.
“It felt like [Stephen King’s] ‘Pet Sematary,’” she said.
Kicking her shoes off because they were soaked, Borch ran the three-quarters of a mile home to her house.
Borch, who was screaming and unsure of how rabies affects humans, remembers thinking, “Oh, God, what if I just start foaming at the mouth and can’t find my way back?”
She met her mother, Elizabeth, at home, and together they drove immediately to Pen Bay Medical Center.
The dead raccoon was retrieved by Borch’s dad, who packed it into a Taste of the Wild dog food bag and handed it over to the Maine Warden Service.
Hope Animal Control Officer Heidi Blood confirmed Wednesday that the dead raccoon later tested positive for rabies by the Maine Center for Disease Control.
“Not to scare people,” Blood said, but “when there’s one [infected], there’s typically another.”
It’s important to “let folks know that just because there’s one [infected] and it’s gone now, doesn’t mean the risk still isn’t there,” she said.
Infected animals typically start showing signs within two weeks, Blood said. Humans can start exhibiting symptoms within a few weeks, she said, but often it takes a few months.
“It’s scary stuff,” Blood said. “The No. 1 thing we try to remind people of is that it’s 100 percent fatal [if it goes untreated].”
Borch has received six shots so far, including the rabies vaccine, and immunoglobulin and tetanus injections. She is slated to receive her last injection this weekend.
“If there hadn’t been water on the ground, I don’t know what I would have done,” Borch said of drowning the animal. “It really was just dumb luck. I’ve never killed an animal with my bare hands. I’m a vegetarian. It was self-defense.”
Her advice for others who find themselves facing a rabid animal? Borch said she has none.
“I always thought of raccoons as this cute, cuddly forest animal,” she said. “I just will never look at them the same way.”
Borch is not the only person to have been attacked by a rabid animal so far this season.
Earlier this week, a Wiscasset man was bitten on both hands in Topsham by what was believed to be a rabid fox.
As of June 7, according to the Maine CDC, there have been 20 animals, including raccoons, red foxes and skunks, that have tested positive for rabies in 2017.
In 2016, 64 animals in Maine tested positive for rabies, according to CDC data.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified who collected the raccoon.