Q&A: Reporter rides ‘poetic’ tale of Maine raccoon attack to internet fame

Alex Acquisto, staff writer at The Bangor Daily News. Image by Rush Jagoe.

It’s not every day that the top of a news story goes viral.

The tale of a Maine jogger attacked by a rabid raccoon received national attention primarily because of how the story, in the Bangor Daily News, began:

 

The story explains how Rachel Borch was jogging when a raccoon began “bounding” toward her. The animal bit her thumb, but she noticed a nearby puddle and knew what she had to do. “With my thumb in its mouth, I just pushed its head down into the muck,” Borch said. She held it under until “its arms sort of fell to the side.”

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Alex Acquisto, the staff writer at The Bangor Daily News who wrote the piece, says she did not expect her story would go national, with writeups of the piece appearing in The Washington Post, New York Daily News, Esquire, and many others.

Acquisto, who is from Kentucky, studied at Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Although she was not formally trained in writing for newspapers, she landed a job at a small weekly in Maine, then moved on to the Daily News, where she is “trying to be more poetic” with her work.

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Mission accomplished: Esquire called her story “a literary masterpiece.”

We talked to her about how she found the story, wrote the lede, and whether she could battle a raccoon herself. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Where did this story come from?

One of the smaller weekly local papers up near where I live wrote the story. I asked my editor if I could write it, because I wanted to have a little fun with it. Also the story itself is really crazy. I didn’t even scoop it—I saw it and redid it myself.

 

How did you conduct the interview?

I went to her house and talked to her and her mom. It was pretty funny. They were open to having me come, and I had her recount the attack in gory detail. It was pretty theatrical. The entire time I was sitting there thinking “Holy shit this is an insane story,” but it really happened.

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Could you see any of her bites or scratches?

She definitely still has marks on her thumb and hands. They’re faint but they’re still there. They are not big—it was a raccoon, obviously its teeth are tiny. But I was hoping they would be more noticeable, only for my sake, not for her sake. But for the most part they are healed.

 

 

Did you expect the story to take off?

I did not. I thought it would be a hit because it is very Stephen King-esque, especially in Maine, but I certainly did not expect it to take off in the explosive way that it did. Pretty much since we posted it, we watched it climb and climb, and it has gotten crazy amounts of attention.

 

How did you come up with the lede?

I was on a deadline. She lives in a rural part of Maine, a half hour away from our bureau. I wrote the entire thing sitting in my car. Rather than starting with the event of being attacked by the rabid raccoon, I wanted to create a tiny bit of suspense before I dropped the bomb. She didn’t know what the hell was about to happen, so I wanted to create that with the lede.

 

The lede is a format. Was that your intention?

Not really, I wasn’t trying to take any format at all. It was how I was trying to write it—

 

Oh, God… Sorry, as I was walking, a bird jumped in my face. I’m telling you, animals are attacking right now. What kind of traffic has the story received?

It is one of the highest. When I looked this morning, it had something like 25,000 or 30,000 Facebook likes which is really insane for one of our articles. It was carrying more than half of our web traffic [she wouldn’t give specifics] yesterday. It is definitely one of the most popular stories. We tend to get pretty good traffic, but this was extreme.

 

Do you think you could also battle a raccoon?

I’d like to think that I could. It definitely has made me think twice about my capabilities just hearing how scary it was to hear her talk about it and how threatened she felt. I have gone into the woods once since then, and I looked around quite a bit because I was thinking what would I do if a rabid animal lunged out at me. In short, yes, I do think I could take a raccoon.

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.