How the Rabies Epidemic Is Affecting Deer and Other Wildlife
At 9:30 on a sunny July morning, the screaming starts: a ragged, half-human keen that pierces the halcyon woods flanking...
At 9:30 on a sunny July morning, the screaming starts: a ragged, half-human keen that pierces the halcyon woods flanking our western Pennsylvania home. My wife, Debbie, our 11-year-old son, Jack, and I run outside to see what’s being murdered. There, beside a patch of Big Boy tomatoes, stand our two pugs, Lefty and Biscuit, with something scruffy and feral wedged between them. It takes a moment to realize what exactly is happening. A 20-pound raccoon has affixed its teeth to the jowly flesh of Biscuit’s muzzle and won’t let go.
I grab a shovel and pin the raccoon’s torso to the ground, which only intensifies the creature’s screams. Putting my full weight into it, I try to shovel the attacking beast in half. Debbie grabs Biscuit’s trunk and tries to yank her free, but the raccoon’s teeth refuse to unclamp. Debbie yells for our friend Rudy Plese, who’s inside working on a carpentry job. He runs out and grabs another shovel.
“Hit it on the head,” shouts Debbie, whose own hands are now perilously close to the raccoon’s teeth. Rudy raps the beast’s brainpan once, then again, and again.
“Whack it harder,” I say, trying my best to snap its spine with my own shovel. A half dozen hits later, the raccoon finally surrenders its death grip on Biscuit, who skedaddles loose, her normally curly tail straightened from trauma. Now that Rudy finally has a clean shot, he gives the raccoon two more blows to the head. Finally, its eyes bulge, blood spurts from its nostrils, and the demon dies.
Jack, Debbie, and I all cradle Biscuit, trying to calm her. She’s soaking wet, and the three of us have been thoroughly slimed. A call to the Allegheny County Health Department confirms our worst fears: The source of this moisture is almost certainly raccoon saliva. Debbie takes Biscuit to the vet for a rabies booster shot. Jack and I pack the raccoon in a garbage bag, surround its head with a bag of ice cubes to preserve the brain tissue, and drive it into Pittsburgh for testing.
Later that same afternoon, we receive a call from the lab. The raccoon has, in fact, tested positive for rabies. All four of us will need to go to the emergency room for evaluation.
HORRIBLE AND FATAL Rabies comes from a Latin word meaning “to rage”–an apropos description of the thrashing, hyperventilating death throes of victims of so-called “furious” rabies. There’s also “dumb” rabies, a less sensational death to watch, though no doubt equally unpleasant to suffer, which is characterized by apathy, depression, paralysis, and coma. Either way, after the symptoms arise, rabies is incurable and virtually 100 percent fatal.
The disease is caused by a nasty, bullet-shaped virus in the Rhabdoviridae family. Once inside the bloodstream, the virus invades and eventually overwhelms the brain and central nervous system. These microscopic miscreants are capable of infecting all warm-blooded hosts, including humans, though their most common victims in the United States today are wild animals, particularly raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, feral cats, and coyotes.
Each year, 7,000 to 9,000 such critters test positive for rabies, though this surely represents only the iceberg’s tip. Nationally, almost half the positives come from infected raccoons. In the Mid-Atlantic states, which are currently in the throes of an unprecedented raccoon rabies epidemic, the rate is closer to 90 percent.
Rabies spreads from one animal to another through infected saliva, which accumulates in great foaming gobs once the virus paralyzes a victim’s throat muscles. Bites from infected raccoons have led to an increasingly bizarre array of affected animals. Just this summer, a black bear in Centre County, Pennsylvania, tested positive. In Georgia, rabid beavers have attempted to jump into fishermen’s boats, and rabid whitetail bucks have been spotted harassing horses and even chasing hunting dogs.
SPREADING LIKE THE PLAGUE The contemporary epidemic in raccoons dates back to the 1970s. In an effort to replenish depleted stocks in the Mid-Atlantic region, more than 3,500 raccoons were live-trapped in Florida and transplanted to West Virginia. Unfortunately, some of these animals carried presymptomatic rabies and ended up starting a chain reaction that wildlife health officials are still contending with today.
“The raccoon strain of rabies is known to travel approximately 10 times faster than any other type,” says Jason Suckow, director of wildlife services in Pennsylvania for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “It’s really unfortunate that those animals were transplanted, because once they arrived, raccoon rabies was able to spread in all directions along the Appalachian mountains.”
If federal, state, and local authorities had unlimited resources, they could blanket the entire Mid-Atlantic region with baits containing oral rabies vaccine, bringing the epidemic to a halt in a matter of years. But because of budgetary concerns–each bait costs $1.23–the current plan is necessarily more modest: establish a baiting corridor beginning at Lake Erie and running south along the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, through West Virginia and Tennessee, and down into Alabama. Once the spread of raccoon-strain rabies has been halted on the western side of this barrier, the idea is to gradually roll the curtain eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean.
When we arrive at the ER late on the afternoon of our own exposure, we get some good news and some bad news. Thanks in large part to the aggressive vaccination of domesticated animals, human deaths from rabies have dropped precipitously since the 1940s when such measures first became mandatory.
The fact that none of us were bitten this morning is further cause for guarded reassurance. On the other hand, skin exposure to the saliva has been known to cause infections through cuts and tiny abrasions. When I mention that Jack and I both have colds and that we might have rubbed our eyes after petting Biscuit, the doctor says this is another possible means of transmission.
Given our circumstances, he says, the choice to undergo a preventive series of shots remains up to us. But if he were in our shoes, he wouldn’t hesitate to get the shots.
We agree, especially after he explains that the agonizing stomach shots most people still fear haven’t been used for 30 years. To our great relief, today’s treatment is infinitely less draconian. On the first day we will begin with intramuscular injections of immune globulin, a thick concoction of antibodies that jump-starts an immune response to any potential rabies virus in our blood. Rudy and I each get four of these shots deep in the muscles of our thighs and butts. Debbie and Jack, who weigh less, get three and two shots respectively. The injections are a little painful but not unbearable. Then we each receive an additional single shot of live rabies vaccine in the shoulder. This contains a genetically altered virus designed to trigger our immune systems to begin producing our own natural antibodies to the disease.
Over the next 28 days, the doctor says, we’ll need to come back four more times on a precise schedule to receive additional doses of vaccine. It’s reassuring to learn that no human who’s adhered to such post-exposure treatment has ever come down with rabies. The main downside is some temporary muscle tenderness in the injection sites and the arguably more painful financial burden of the shot series, which comes to an estimated $1,500 per individual.
Back home that night, I’m thankful for the latest medical advances but conclude that, all in all, it would have been better to have avoided this morning’s encounter altogether.
WRESTLING WITH DEMONS
When a beloved dog is under attack, says the USDA’s Jason Suckow, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the drama of the moment. He suspects that many hunters probably would have reacted the same way my family did. “Under the circumstances,” he says, “it’s really hard to do everything right to avoid exposure. The biggest thing would have been to put on gloves first so that your skin was protected from direct contact with saliva or blood.”
Dr. Gary San Julian, professor of wildlife resources at Penn State University, says that he’d have tried to keep as much distance as possible between himself and a potentially infected animal. “I might have used a long pole to try to separate them,” he says. –J.T.
RABIES: PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
• Always give a wide berth to any creature acting strangely. Raccoons, for instance, are normally nocturnal. If you spot one out in the daytime, it’s a definite red flag for illness.
• Never tempt wildlife with food. Feed your dogs inside the house and use tamperproof garbage cans to secure refuse. “During hunting and fishing trips,” says San Julian, “don’t throw that good fish grease from the frying pan right next to the campfire. That smell is definitely going to linger and tempt raccoons. It’s much better to put the grease in a can and treat it as garbage.”
• Make sure your pets’ vaccinations are up to date. Practically speaking, your dog is much more likely to run into a rabid animal than you are. If your dog’s vaccination status is current, the rabies virus won’t be able to leapfrog from raccoon to dog to you.
• If you or your dog do end up getting attacked, most states allow you to kill the wild animal regardless of hunting season. Take the remains to the local county health department for testing ASAP. Because a rabies diagnosis requires sampling brain tissue, do not shoot the animal in the head. Chill the head with bags of ice, but do not freeze the brain. If the test comes back positive, you’ll definitely need to see your doctor for specific treatment advice.
• The rabies virus can live up to several hours after leaving the host. During this time period, limit exposure to any potential source of the virus, such as saliva on your dog’s coat. If you do have direct skin contact with saliva or blood, wash immediately with soap and water, then see your doctor.
• Immediately after any attack, take your dog to a veterinarian for evaluation and a possible rabies booster shot. If the raccoon or other animal tests positive, your dog will likely be quarantined on your property for a period of several months even if its vaccination status is current. If your dog hasn’t been vaccinated, it may need to be euthanized.
• Err on the side of caution. If there’s any doubt about potential exposure, get treated. The shots, as I’ve learned firsthand, really aren’t that bad. Death by rabies, on the other hand, is as horrific as you can imagine. On the plus side, once you have been vaccinated, you’ll be invulnerable for a number of years to future attacks. –J.T.