Update to our original story: Rocky the Raccoon has tested negative for rabies.
Maddock, N.D. — Kathryn Fingle was steadily guiding the family Peterbilt semi in parallel to her husband’s combine as harvest season came to a close on a warm September night. Moments later, two Predator RQ-1s cut through the skies of the open prairie, with several North Dakota National Guard Blackhawk helicopters trailing behind.
“It brought back memories of 9/11,” said Fingle.
Little did Fingle realize she had witnessed the largest joint operation between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in North Dakota’s history as authorities searched for a potentially rabid raccoon that endangered the entire region.
Earlier this week, the largest coon hunt in North Dakota’s history, dubbed Operation Enduring Rabies, was launched after a wild raccoon named Rocky invaded the local bar in the quiet town of Maddock, N.D.
“And given that the only thing to do in Maddock is to drink, the whole town was at the bar with Rocky,” says Maddock’s Mayor.
As word spread of Rocky’s visit on social media, it soon caught the attention of officials at the North Dakota Department of Health, prompting both a rabies warning and lockdown on the community.
“We knew we had to act quickly,” said the North Dakota Department of Health’s rabies awareness coordinator. “Rabies has a near 100% fatality rate and we were concerned a rabies outbreak would force us to make some really tough decisions.”
Operation Enduring Rabies Unfolds
Across the prairie in Bismarck, Governor Burgum was briefed on the rapidly developing situation.
“It was a tense evening for the Governor,” said one official. “There was no telling who came into contact with the coon. The North Dakota Department of Transportation was working to close down roads and highways, the Department of Public Instruction worked to delay school and busses by two hours and the North Dakota National Guard faced the very real probability of trying to contain an entire city of rabid humans.”
More concerning was the prospect of Rocky and his handlers seeking safe harbor in an endless sea of posted land.
In 2021, the North Dakota legislature approved legislation allowing landowners to electronically post their land. The legislation authorized the creation of a freely available database of ‘safe harbors’ for migrants like Rocky.
“The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was in a very real race against time given the raccoon could quickly seek asylum on private property,” said Governor Burgum.
Less than twelve hours after Rocky’s first contact with Maddock’s population, Burgum deployed the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Special Wildlife Expeditionary and Auxiliary Team, or S.W.E.A.T, to hunt down the miscreant.
Up until Operation Enduring Rabies, little was known about the elite unit of game wardens.
The group is funded through the department’s “enforcement” slush fund with additional funding derived from an influx of federal Covid-19 relief dollars that were disbursed during the North Dakota Legislative Assembly’s 2021 Special Session.
Equipped with armored four wheel drive vehicles and watercraft, night vision binoculars, Yeti Coolers with long-lasting icepacks and fully automatic firearms, S.W.E.A.T conducts their operations out of a network of CENEX Stations across North Dakota.
“If a threat arises in nearly any corner of North Dakota, a team of S.W.E.A.T operators can quickly deploy from a nearby CENEX Station. The convenience stores give our operators a tactical advantage due to supplying our teams with gasoline, coffee and Hot Stuff Pizza. And because CENEX stations play a key role in agrarian life, CENEX patrons provide our operators with critical intel,” said a North Dakota Game and Fish Department Public Information Officer. “We can get a tip over a cup of coffee on someone who has perhaps posted their land with an illegal sign and have a S.W.E.A.T operator on the scene in less than an hour.”
Following S.W.E.A.T’s deployment, aided by the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the U.S. Marshalls Service, Operation Enduring Rabies was officially underway.
A command center was deployed at the Governor’s residence and members of the North Dakota Senate Intelligence Committee were briefed on the unfolding situation. S.W.E.A.T operators patrolled country roads along with the waters and shorelines of Devils Lake.
“We were told the sole focus of the operation was to kill or capture Rocky,” said Senator Jerry Klein.
But despite S.W.E.A.T’s rapid mobile deployment, not a trace of Rocky was found. Both the coon and his handler vanished without a trace.
Border patrol agents were alerted in the event the raccoon were to flee to Canada, while Montana and South Dakota law enforcement officials stood by on heightened alert.
“Unfortunately Minnesota was unwilling to cooperate in the ongoing matter,” said a senior Burgum administration official.
Help From Above
As time stretched on and as Rocky evaded authorities, the Burgum administration feared more populations could be exposed to rabies. Sources say that officials were split over whether to launch a series of airstrikes over Maddock’s population conducted by the 5th Bomber Wing at the Minot Air Force Base to eradicate the raccoon, or opt for a door-to-door ground assault utilizing S.W.E.A.T operators and North Dakota National Guard soldiers.
“We presented the Governor with a range of options, but ultimately, Burgum asked us to ‘deploy the drones,’ said Burgum’s Rabies Taskforce Director.
At the nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base, two RQ-1 drones equipped with hellfire missiles and infrared sensors left the runways of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, powered by the nation’s first beyond visual line of sight network funded by the North Dakota Legislature. Named VANTIS, the network allows pilots to fly unmanned aircraft systems, or drones from hundreds of miles away.
“North Dakota has invested over $50 million in VANTIS since its inception. For years, the legislature has asked what has VANTIS done for our state,” said Bismarck Representative Mike Nathe. “I think Operation Enduring Rabies answered that question.”
To aid law enforcement efforts, Governor Burgum also signed an executive order, allowing sportsmen to legally hunt raccoons in North Dakota for a period of two weeks.
“By reinventing government and eliminating burdensome regulations, North Dakota’s citizens can work side-by-side with law enforcement to aid in the largest coon hunt in our nation’s history,” said Burgum.
On the morning of September 16, a Predator drone flying over the city of Maddock locked sights on a heat signature that matched Rocky’s description while hunters on the ground identified raccoon droppings within the city limits.
“The heat signature confirmed we were hot on the trail of Rocky,” said a Burgum Administration official. “S.W.E.A.T operators confirmed they had spotted the vermin’s courier delivering supplies to a home just blocks from the bar that Rocky had visited just 48 hours prior. We knew we had to act quickly.”
Within minutes, North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley signed a search warrant while senior government officials, including Burgum, were whisked away to the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s Northern Plains Test Site command center where they could watch the operation unfold.
That evening, a red harvest moon lit the skies above North Dakota.
Predator drones soared silently above the skies of Maddock as over a dozen S.W.E.A.T operators closed in on the residential neighborhood that was thought to be harboring Rocky.
At nearby Camp Grafton, 500 North Dakota National Guard members stood by as backup in case of trouble.
Burgum and his advisors watched as North Dakota National Guard Major General Alan Dohrmann narrated the situation from a nearby field office, while a camera strapped to North Dakota Game and Fish Director Jeb Williams live-streamed the raid.
“S.W.E.A.T has reached the target,” said Dohrmann.
The sound of a battering-ram cut through the silence. Flash bangs lit up the screens in the command center.
“We have visual on Rocky,” he said.
A few minutes later: “Rocky EKIA.”
Enemy killed in action. Silence fell over the command center.
Finally, the governor spoke.
“We got him.”
North Dakota’s rabies nightmare was over.
A picture taken by S.W.E.A.T commandos was uploaded to the North Dakota Game and Fish’s animal database, which identified Rocky with 99.9% accuracy. His body was put into a Dollar General plastic bag while his courier was handcuffed and taken by the Benson County Sheriff’s Department.
DNA samples were taken from coon’s carcass and sent to the state crime lab to be tested for rabies.
Rocky’s body was loaded into the back of a nondescript garbage truck and driven to the nearby landfill. Only a small handful of county employees watching from a distance were witness to the end of North Dakota’s most wanted fugitive.
The Flickertail Times is a satirical news blog featuring all things North Dakotan.