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Looks can deceive: They're adorable, but kinkajous are really 'Satan's teddy bears'

The baby-sized brown fuzzball sedated on a vet table looks sweet and harmless. But then you notice his sharp, well-used claws and teeth.

Meet Baxter, a 7-year-old kinkajou at Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro. Baxter is in Week 2 of his monthlong newcomer quarantine, so I got to watch his caretakers conduct a physical this week, weighing the 6-pound animal and administer vaccines so that he can join the other three rescue kinkajous at the animal sanctuary.

“[Kinkajous] are tiny and adorable until they reach maturity, when they turn wild,” veterinarian Dr. Angela Lassiter said. “We call them Satan’s teddy bears. They’re not evil, they’re just wild.”

Native to the tropical forests of Central and South America, kinkajous survive on fruit and whip-quick instincts and reach adulthood after around two years. Baxter’s owners in North Carolina, who had him since he was a pup, sent him to the sanctuary. He had demonstrated more aggressive behavior over the past few years and had bitten them several times, including in the car on the way to Carolina Tiger Rescue.

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Angela Lassiter, veterinarian at Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, N.C., examines Baxter, a seven-year-old kinkajou Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Native to the tropical forests of Central and South America, kinkajous survive on fruit and whip-quick instincts. After seven years of ownership, Baxter’s owners gave him to the rescue sanctuary. Yen Duong yduong@newsobserver.com

“Small animals can’t let big predators get the upper hand,” Kathryn Bertok, assistant director of the sanctuary, said. “If I got the upper hand on Baxter, I could snap him in half. So if they feel endangered, they’ll bite and fight quickly.”

“Those are nasty teeth,” Bertok said, gesturing to Baxter’s four half-inch long incisors and rows of short, sharp teeth. “They’re fruit eaters, so they have a lot of bacteria in their mouths. Biting is their big defense. When they feel threatened, they go for the eyes.”

Kinkajous, who are nocturnal, can maneuver by turning their feet completely around and gripping with tails that “look like a cinnamon roll,” Bertok said.

This week, Lassiter checked on Baxter’s tail and limbs, measured his oxygen saturation with a tongue clip, lubricated his eyes so he doesn’t wake up itchy, vaccinated him for rabies and canine distemper, ran an EKG to monitor his heart rate and wrapped a doll-sized blood pressure cuff around his arm.

Baxter's fast metabolism burns through the anesthesia, Lassiter said, so every three to five minutes they administered tiny doses of anesthetic to keep him under. I got to pet his buttery soft back, felt his rough paw with its intimidating claws and ran a finger over his curiously dense prehensile, or gripping, tail.

Lassiter gently held out Baxter's 5-inch-long tongue for inspection, explaining that this is how far it extends if he yawns. We could only touch him because he was under sedation for his quarantine inspection. The rescue is a no-contact facility, which means that neither the public nor the staff touch the animals.

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Baxter, a seven-year-old kinkajou, is examined at Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, N.C., Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Native to the tropical forests of Central and South America, kinkajous survive on fruit and whip-quick instincts. After seven years of ownership, Baxter’s owners gave him to the rescue sanctuary. Yen Duong yduong@newsobserver.com

"To be a federal sanctuary, the public can’t have contact with the animals,” Jessika Morgan, communications coordinator, said. “We take it a step further and the staff has no contact, except for the physicals we do every other year.”

North Carolina is one of four states with no laws against owning tigers, though a 2015 house bill that proposed a ban died in committee. N.C. prohibits people from owning eight specific animals, including bobcats, foxes and raccoons. Though Baxter lives at the tiger rescue, he’s actually more related to raccoons than big cats.

There are dozens of kinkajous, ranging from babies to breeding pairs, available online for $1,750 to $4,000. There was one N.C. seller of the 3- to 10-pound animals.

“They’re not all that uncommon; someone in my line of work will see one or two a month,” said Dr. Dan Johnson, veterinarian at Avian and Exotic Animal Care, Raleigh's only exotic animal hospital, said. “I don’t recommend them as pets. If someone wants a pet I tell them to get a rabbit or a guinea pig. But if someone has their heart set on a kinkajou, they can get one, and the care for one is reasonably straightforward. It’s not rocket science.”

Carolina Tiger Rescue also recommended that you not buy a kinkajou or other exotic animal as a pet. Other animals at the tiger rescue were abandoned on roadsides, used as props in a haunted house or even dropped off at the rescue with a note, as happened to Elvis, a serval, or big cat.

“We fight for a day when we don’t have to find abandoned animals,” Morgan said. “We educate people so we don’t have another Elvis dropped off in our driveway.”

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