Officials Battle Rabies in Wildlife

Sep 3, 2021  | 7 min  | Ep4703

Betsy Haley is holding the line. Plotting where the enemy might next attempt to cross the mountains, she has just dispatched the fifth flight of the day.

The enemy she’s fighting?

Rabies.

A virus – fatal if left untreated - that has struck fear in humans for generations. In the United States, the rabies threat doesn’t look like it used to when it comes to the carrier animals.

It’s less this [growling dog] and more this [cute raccoon].

In the early part of the 1900s, dogs were the primary carriers in the U.S.. But, between public awareness campaigns and the enactment of dog vaccination mandates in most states, that has changed.

Today, wildlife are more likely to carry rabies than the nation’s domestic animals. Foxes and bats have been a constant threat, but the bigger danger in recent decades came from skunks and raccoons.

Haley and others at USDA’s Wildlife Services have been working to help reduce the prevalence among raccoons and other wildlife.

Betsy Haley, National Rabies Management Program: “The focus is actually on raccoons and skunks because those are the animals that seem to encounter humans more. Especially raccoons. Raccoons seem to be that warm, fuzzy critter that everybody wants to get closer to or befriend.”

Since the 1990s, officials have been criss-crossing the countryside in planes and helicopters, dropping vaccine-filled bait packets covered with a sweet coating to attract the raccoons.

Betsy Haley, National Rabies Management Program: “Our work is to distribute oral rabies vaccine baits for raccoons, starting from Maine down to Alabama. …And helping to map the areas that we are going to distribute the baits in.”

When the raccoon-variant of rabies began moving north from Florida in the 1940s – and was accidentally accelerated by some trappers in the 1970s – federal officials took notice. And began a campaign to confine the disease.

Fortunately, the Appalachian Mountains offered a natural barrier that slowed the progression of the virus. An additional drag was placed on the migration of the disease by the development and distribution of rabies vaccines.

The battle isn’t over. Rabid raccoon attacks still happen today along the East Coast.

WCVB News Report: Laurie Rose said she spotted the raccoon when she heard her chicken, Alice, squawking Saturday evening. That’s when she came outside to put Alice in her pen. ‘It just charged me and I slipped and it grabbed ahold of my heel and it would not let go.”

The Boston-area woman, bitten earlier this summer, received the proper rabies treatment quickly, which is key to surviving exposure through a bite or scratch.

The command center for the raccoon rabies bait drop on this particular day in August was the airport near North Lima in eastern Ohio. Over four days, the team would distribute 700,000 bait packets.

Betsy Haley, National Rabies Management Program: This project itself is covering portions of eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and a little bit of northern West Virginia. … We chose this area because it is the western edge of the raccoon rabies front.”

In many states, although it can fluctuate, the number of rabies-infected wildlife appears to be declining over the past 15 years. That includes Ohio, where wildlife biologist Jeff Raines is based.

Jeff Raines, Wildlife Services, USDA: “At the height of the raccoon rabies positives in Ohio, we had over 20 positives in Ohio in a calendar year. And through the work of the Ohio rabies management program and the national rabies management program, there’s been a decline in the number of cases per year. In 2020, we only had one positive animal and so far in 2021, we only found one animal.”

The personnel on the flights drop the packets over woods and fields where raccoons are likely to live, avoiding a release over homes or populated areas.

Jeff Raines, Wildlife Services, USDA: “Through complex calculations, the national rabies management staff determine how many baits need to go out in a certain area … So for this flight, we’ll have roughly 12,000 baits, and that can fluctuate from 10- to 20,000 baits depending on the area we are working…. We’ll have a total of 15 flights today.”

Anyone who finds a bait packet should put on gloves before picking it up and moving it to a wooded area. And, no matter what, to always avoid going near raccoons, particularly if they are stumbling around or acting strangely.

Betsy Haley, USDA National Rabies Management Program: “If you do get bitten by an animal…the best thing to do is clean and wash that infected area and then contact your local health department immediately.”

The number of humans dying from rabies has dropped over time and it is now rare in the U.S. Just a few years ago, however, a Delaware woman died of the disease. State officials said she may have been exposed to rabies through a scratch from a feral cat or one of her own. She was the state’s first confirmed rabies death in 77 years.

While eliminating all variants of rabies from the U.S. may be impossible because of the difficulty in delivering vaccine to bats, the variant carried by raccoons could actually be eliminated.

Betsy Haley, National Rabies Management Program. “The ultimate goal is to eradicate rabies from the Eastern U.S.”

For Market to Market, I’m Colleen Bradford Krantz.

Producer contact: colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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