THE OWNER of a bike-riding raccoon has hit back at critics calling her act “horribly disrespectful”.

Melanie the raccoon performed at the Pet Expo held at Bluewater Shopping Centre last weekend (October 24-27), prompting an animal rights row after backlash on social media.

American Kimberly Unger defended her act, calling herself a “true animal lover”.

She told News Shopper: “One photo says nothing. It’s like a sound bite. For instance, I will present her with a scooter and she will ride around the room on it.

“When I say ‘good girl’ she will start clapping. Raccoons have the intelligence of a three or four-year-old child.”

She added: “It’s quite obvious that everyone is truly uneducated about who I am or how I work with Melanie.”

Miss Unger has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, a Master’s in Equine Science as well as a whole host of animal-related experience, including training her dog to become a Reading Education Assistant.

She has even considered pursuing a PhD to study raccoon intelligence, but does not think they make good pets due to the space and mental stimulation they require.

“I have spent my entire life with animals. I purchased Melanie raccoon as a baby. I emphatically believe that raccoons do not make good pets.

“Because I have a very comprehensive background working with animals, I undertook the challenge of acquiring a raccoon.

“I never force Melanie to do something that she does not want to do. She readily participates in certain behaviours just for the enjoyment of the activity itself.”

Miss Unger describes her relationship with eight-year-old Melanie as more than pet and owner.

She said: “Melanie is the most amazing animal and I treat her as though she is my daughter. She has more toys than most children.

“She sleeps with me at night. I spend every single day with her at home. The time, patience and dedication that I give to Melanie is what has made her the most wonderful animal.”

She added: “I want to educate the public that raccoons are extremely intelligent and deserve respect.”

The RSPCA condemned the use of Melanie as a "circus-style stunt".

David Cowdrey, RSPCA head of communications, said: "It is such a demeaning way to portray a wild animal and implies that animals are here just for our amusement."

He added: "We urge anyone considering the idea of using animals in this horribly disrespectful way to think again."

Bluewater have removed pictures from the Pet Expo from their Facebook page and said they have no plans to run the event, staged by Sherwood Media and Events UK, again.

A spokesman for the shopping centre said: "A number of leading animal welfare charities were represented at the event including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Dogs Trust and Cats Protection.

"In addition a vet was on hand throughout the show to ensure the welfare of all the animals.

"We take the concerns raised by the public very seriously, and they will help to inform of Glow’s calendar of future events.

"In the meantime, we would like to apologise for any concerns the show has raised, and confirm that there are no plan to run Pet Expo again."

In a letter to the RSPCA, Sherwood Media and Events organisers Marie Murphy and Lesley Magill said the negative comments received were “unjust.”

They continued: “As organisers, we are animal lovers, one of whom has been involved in animal welfare all her life.

“It is unfortunate that no representative from the RSPCA was actually there at the event to speak to the owner of the much loved raccoon who had been hand-reared and trained with patience, clicker and treat methods and was in no way forced to ‘perform’.

“We are disappointed that the people complaining about a much loved and extremely well looked after animal do not put their energy dealing with the genuine cruelty and animal abuse that is rampant in the UK.”