It is not exactly the best of times, Eleanore Leach of Alexandria will concede, to be leading a crusade over the killing of a raccoon.
Given the concern in the Washington area about the rabies epidemic spread by more than 200 rabid raccoons, the animals are hardly the most popular creatures to be found in the region.
But then Tillie, the dead raccoon, wasn't just any wild animal, at least to Leach and some other residents of the Braddock Heights neighborhood where Tillie made her home. "We all knew her. We watched her," Leach said of the animal that had roamed the area for some time, raising several litters and, in the process, becoming sort of a local character.
But all that ended on the evening of Aug. 25 last summer. While sitting on the back deck of her Timber Branch Drive home, Leach said, she heard Tillie's cries.
What Leach saw when she ran toward the cries left her horrified: a group of men was near the First Assembly of God Church, bludgeoning and stabbing the raccoon with shovels and a pitchfork.
That sight has fired her with a cause. Although many rabid raccoons have since been found in the metropolitan area, Leach, who said she remains convinced that Tillie's killing was needless and brutal, wants those responsible prosecuted.
"It was one of the most horrible things I've ever seen," said Leach, who worked as an ambassador's secretary before she retired. "It was senseless and savage."
Caught in the middle is Pastor Thomas Gulbronson of the First Assembly of God Church at 700 W. Braddock Rd., where the animal had made its den in the eaves of an administration building. Gulbronson said in an interview last fall that he had not ordered the raccoon killed and that he had personally apologized to Leach after the killing.
Last week, a church spokesman repeated that the church did not authorize the killing, terming the raccoon's death "unfortunate."
Leach remains unsatisfied, however. Frustrated by what she thinks is a lack of interest among local animal welfare and law enforcement officials, Leach is preparing to take Tillie's case before an Alexandria grand jury Feb. 7. Her hope is that the grand jury will indict the animal's killers and force Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch to prosecute them on an animal abuse charge, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $1,000.
It is an uphill battle at best, since some area officials express little sympathy for raccoons and say the public should avoid them in urban areas.
"Although they are attractively packaged, raccoons living near humans present a greater threat of one becoming infected" with rabies, said Kenneth L. Crawford, chief of veterinary medicine for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He said people sometimes get so close to urban raccoons that they are bitten, while chances are much less that humans will approach raccoons in the wild.
No rabid raccoons have been found in Alexandria since the rabies alert began in September 1981. Nonetheless, Gail Snider, the city's top animal welfare official, is blunt: "Don't approach raccoons for any reason," she warned.
Despite the fear of raccoons, Leach has won the support of Barbara Cohen and Mollie McCurdy, two volunteer workers for the Humane Society of Fairfax County. All three women have lobbied city prosecutors, magistrates and Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Wiley R. Wright Jr. on the issue.
"I'm so frustrated I don't know what to do," said Cohen. "It seems everyone is passing the buck."
The women said they first approached Snider, who told them she decided not to prosecute Tillie's killers because the courts are unsympathetic in most animal abuse cases. McCurdy said she was shocked by such a position in a place as "sophisticated as Alexandria."
Snider denied making such a statement. She said she told the women she had decided 10 hours after the animal's death that the case was not solid enough to take to court. "There were too many gray areas," Snider said.
In December, the women went to the city magistrate's office, requesting warrants against the men who killed the raccoon. They were refused.
Two weeks ago, the women turned to Wright for help. They said he told them he had no direct control over the magistrates and suggested they talk to prosecutor Kloch.
Kloch said last week he would prosecute the case only if warrants were issued for the suspects or if the women can convince a grand jury to indict the men who killed the raccoon.
And if the jury rejects their request? McCurdy said the women will appeal to Virginia Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles in Richmond.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney David Dunlap said it is rare for a grand jury to indict at the request of a private citizen. But, he added, if the grand jury does return an indictment, "I'll go ahead with the case."