Trappers and rabies return to rampage
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1997:
BURLINGTON, Vt.– – Haunting
the woods of the east and upper midwest,
they’re at large again, clamping their jaws on
any animal they encounter, usually causing a
lingering painful death.
A resurgance of raccoon trapping
over the past winter, nationally measured in
the tens of thousands, and a resurgence of
raccoon rabies, measured by hundreds of
detected cases, are both officially associated
with an alleged recovery of raccoon populations,
after a crash attributed to rabies and
harsh winters in the early 1990s.
Roadkill survey data, however,
doesn’t support wildlife agency claims that
raccoons are increasing. Roadkills of both
raccoons and other species have crashed
since 1993, according to the Dr. Splatt roadkill
surveys, coordinated each spring by science
teacher Brewster Bartlett, of Pinkerton
Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. The
Dr. Splatt data is collected by students at
more than 100 middle schools across the
U.S.––the majority of them in the northeast,
where both raccoon trapping and raccoon
rabies are most prevalent. According to the
Strah Polls, conducted year-round by road
department secretary Cathy Strah, of Mentor,
Ohio, the raccoon population in that area
was stable in 1993-1994, peaked in 1995,
and last year fell back to just slightly more
than the previous norm.
What is up––sharply––is raccoon
trapping, driven by fast-rising Asian
demand. Raccoon pelts that fetched just
$8.00 at auction in 1994 reportedly brought
almost $21.00 average this spring. Unsold
stocks from the early 1990s are finally gone.
Buyer interest from the Asian fur garment
manufacturing centers, especially Hong
Kong, appears to be up because of specula-
tion. Pelt buyers are gambling not only that
U.S. and European retail fur sales will rebound
from a nine-year decline, but also that the supply
of pelts from North American species will
be restricted by the pending European
Community ban on imports of furs from
leghold-trapped species. The speculators are
betting, in effect, that the import ban will be
imposed at last in June, after two postponements,
despite the concerted efforts of the
U.S., Canada, and Russia to undo it.
Rising pelt prices correspondingly
stimulated trapping across North America last
winter. Among the first states to report final
season statistics, Missouri sold 4,500 trapping
permits, up from the recent low of 2,500 in
1994, albeit still well below the 8,500 of a
decade ago. Michigan had 13,500 trappers,
fewer than the 18,000 of a decade ago, but up
25% in a year.
Wherever rabies was, it has reappeared
more-or-less proportionately. In New
York, for instance, also reporting a rise in
trapping, 360 positive rabies tests were
recorded through April 1997, about half in
raccoons––a 20% increase from the first four
months of 1996. New York, first hit by raccoon
rabies in 1990, found a peak incidence of
rabies in 1993, with 2,746 cases of all rabies
strains combined, out of 11,900 animals tested.
That set a new national record. The numbers
have since declined, but New York again
led the nation in positive findings in 1996,
with 1,084 cases detected among 9,000 animals
tested. One case of the raccoon rabies
strain appeared in a goat who was on exhibit at
the Tioga County Fair, attended by 25,000
people. Fortunately the only public exposure
was believed to have been when the goat was
led down the midway for judging.
Connecticut, first hit in 1991, had
133 rabies cases during the first four months of
1997, up from 57 in 1996. Raccoons, again,
were the most afflicted species.
Climbing raccoon pelt prices likewise
paralleled the spread of raccoon rabies
northward after 1976, when a group of West
Virginia raccoon hunters and trappers translocated
3,500 raccoons from a part of Florida
where raccoon rabies has persisted for more
than 40 years, trying to rebuild the hunted-out
local population. Afterward, while state
wildlife agencies urged trappers and coonhunters
to kill as many raccoons as possible,
rabies advanced at about 50 miles per year.
From 1977 through 1987, trappers
in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland,
Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey
killed more than 500,000 raccoons per year.
Hunters killed as many more. Yet rabies kept
spreading because the killing both obliged raccoons
to wander farther in search of mates and
opened habitat, encouraging large litters.
Rabies typically kills raccoons, like
humans, within days of the appearance of
active symptoms, but the latency period
before symptoms show in either raccoons or
humans is often around two months, and can
be up to six month––long enough for an infected
raccoon to mate and raise rabid offspring.
The pandemic momentum slowed
only when it reached Connecticut and
Massachusetts, where trapping was comparatively
quite light, even though the raccoon
population was denser: up to 300 raccoons per
square mile in Fairfield County, Connecticut,
where the first and most cases of raccoon
rabies in Connecticut were found.
By the mid-1980s, Dr. William
Winkler of the National Centers for Disease
Control warned in the National Academy of
Sciences’ handbook Control of Rabies:
“Persistant trapping or poisoning campaigns as
a means to rabies control should be abolished.
There is no evidence that these costly and
politically attractive programs reduce either
wildlife reservoirs or rabies incidence.”
By January 1994, even the conservative
National Association of State Public
Health Veterinarians acknowledged the point.
“Continuous and persistent government-funded
programs for trapping or poisoning wildlife
are not cost effective in reducing wildlife
rabies reservoirs on a statewide basis,” the
1994 NASPHV Compendium of Animal
Rabies Control stipulated.
The compendium appeared in the
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical
A s s o c i a t i o n, and seemed to mark a change.
With raccoon pelt prices at their lowest level in
half a century, reported rabies cases declined
over the next several years in most regions.
At the border
Hoping to keep the current raccoon
rabies outbreak out of Quebec, the Quebec
government picked up $110,000 of the reported
$150,000 cash cost of distributing 70,000
baited oral rabies vaccination capsules across
Franklin, Lamoille, and Grand Isle Counties
in northern Vermont during the second week
in May. Vermont hoped to get federal aid to
cover the balance of the cash outlay.
The capsules are a sort of fish meal
sandwich, containing a vaccine dose in a wax
capsule, genetically engineered to be
absorbable only by raccoons. Ontario, sharing
the New York border, within an hour’s drive
of Vermont, assisted in kind, furnishing the
plane to drop the capsules, two pilots, two
navigators, three rabies specialists to provide
technical help, and the operator of the airborne
bait-spreading machine. Earlier,
Ontario spread 400,000 vaccination doses
across upstate New York; New York paid for
three-fourths, Ontario for the balance.
The May vaccine drop, supervised
by Cornell University, the USDA, and the
Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife,
came after rabid bobcats attacked two humans,
45 miles apart, on April 28 and 29 in
Delaware County, New York. An 80-year-old
Roxbury man was bitten eight times before the
attacking bobcat took off in pursuit of a
domestic housecat, was cornered in a garage,
and was shot. A day later, a 13-year-old boy
was bitten on the thumb and arm after a bobcat
followed him into a Hancock elementary
school from the playground, as he and other
boys tried to summon an adult. Shaking the
bobcat off, the boy reportedly then tried to
strangle the cat, before an adult intervened
and killed the cat himself. Both attacks came
in urban areas, not usual bobcat habitat, and
both bobcats carried raccoon rabies. Raccoons
are a staple prey of bobcats.
The vaccine drop is to be repeated in
the fall, to vaccinate young raccoons who may
not have been weaned in May. Using 60
pieces of bait per square kilometre, it was
billed as a field test of the vaccination method,
following successful trials in the St. Lawrence
Valley of New York, the Cape May area in
New Jersey, and around the Cape Cod Canal
in Massachusetts, where Tufts School of
Veterinary Medicine staff and volunteers have
distributed 20,000 vaccination pellets annually
since 1994. While 19 cases of raccoon rabies
have been found within six miles of the vaccination
zone on the mainland side of the canal,
none have been reported on the Cape side.
Air distribution of oral rabies vaccinations
has been used successfully against fox
rabies in Europe for nearly 20 years. Adopting
the technique early, Ontario has cut confirmed
fox rabies cases in the province from 600 in
1980 to 15 last year.
Quebec, by contrast, has done relatively
little about fox rabies. While the raccoon
rabies outbreak has spread north, fox
rabies has several times spread south from
Quebec into the U.S., mostly through
Vermont. Rabies apparently does not move
easily from New York into Canada, or vice
versa, except possibly through the Champlain
Valley, south of Montreal, because the St.
Lawrence River and Great Lakes form a natural
obstacle to land animals from Massena,
New York, to Duluth, Minnesota.
Vermont DFW officials and counterparts
in the state agriculture department were
apparently not above playing politics with the
vaccination effort, reportedly warning members
of the anti-leghold trapping group
EndTrap that a trap ban would prevent vaccine
dropping. The apparent implication was that
the DFW and agriculture department would
obstruct the vaccine drop should leghold trapping
be banned, so as to rouse fear of rabies
toward getting the ban rescinded. There seems
to be little chance, however, that the antileghold
trap ban EndTrap has long pursued
will escape the statehouse committees where it
has remained blocked for 11 years.
Some of the same Vermont officials
influenced the Burlington board of health to
hire a trapper to kill raccoons among a cluster
of vacant hunting and fishing camps on the
north side of town, which reputedly shelter a
huge raccoon population. Ninety percent of
the raccoons were said to be rabid. A raccoon
rabies outbreak did appear to spread from that
neighborhood into surrounding Colchester,
Winooski, and Milton. However, of 31 raccoons
caught between April 18 and May 12,
only 12 were even deemed worth testing for
rabies, and just six of them were rabid.
Finally heeding warnings from Judy
Anderson of Vermont Wildlife Rehabilitators
that killing raccoons merely opens habitat,
attracting more raccoons into proximity with
rabies carriers, the Burlington board of health
called the effort off.
Rabies is moving both north and
west. Maine had only 10 cases in 1994, but
had 101 in 1995, 131 in 1996, and 84 by late
April 1997. About two-thirds were raccoons.
Skunks and foxes, still carrying a rabies strain
that arrived from Quebec circa 1980, accounted
for most of the rest.
As concern increased, police in
Westbrook, Maine in October 1996 reloaded
their sidearms with birdshot, to avoid richochets
when dispatching raccoons, and on May
9 authorized animal control officer David
Sparks to use blue flashing emergency lights
on his car when responding to rabies calls.
Despite a year of public education about
rabies, however, Westbrook discovered a crisis
on May 12: seven children, ages of six to
12, found a dead raccoon the day before, dissected
it as some apparently learned to do in
school, and tried to remove its teeth, coming
into intimate contact with blood and saliva.
Either could carry the rabies virus––and police
who later picked up the carcass had it incinerated
before knowing children had handled it.
Ohio had just two rabies cases in
1996, but as raccoon rabies hit, Mahoning
County alone had 15 in the first 110 days of
1997. In one case a rabid raccoon had contact
with five people, including a three-year-old
boy. All received post-exposure vaccination.
As 20 years ago, some of the current
rabies outbreaks may result from translocation.
In mid-May, for instance, a homeowner shot
a rabid raccoon who had injured his vaccinated
dogs in a backyard altercation near Chapel Hill
in Orange County, North Carolina. The raccoon
was the 35th confirmed case of rabies in
Orange County since July 1996, when the disease
spread from neighboring Chatham
County, which had only three cases in 1996
but had already identified 86 cases just in
1997. This was about a third of the state total.
Chapel Hill, however, is miles
from any previous cases.
“I don’t know how that raccoon got
there,” Orange County animal control officer
John Sauls told reporter Todd Nelson, of the
Raleigh News & Observer. “Unless somebody
dropped that raccoon off or it escaped from
some sort of enclosure, it tells us we can’t
track the periphery of the epidemic as well as
we thought we could.”
As many as 50 people required postexposure
rabies vaccinations in Morrisville,
North Carolina, after handling puppies from a
litter that included at least one confirmed
rabies case. Five of the seven-member litter
jointly dragged a raccoon carcass into their
owner’s yard in early April. Three puppies in
all were killed for testing, one was killed by a
car, and two were given away before the raccoon
incident. Morrisville is in Wake County,
which at that point had dealt with 77 rabies
cases since July 1994: six in pets, 62 in raccoons
(21 in 1995, 41 in 1996), and the rest in
bats and foxes.
North Carolina, a raccoon rabies
hotspot in the early 1970s, before the West
Virginia translocation, had just nine cases of
rabies in 1990, but had 176 in 1994, 467 in
1995, and 741 in 1996, expecting to record
1,500 this year, with outbreaks reported in 59
of 100 counties.
Of the 1996 cases, 581 involved raccoons.
Also afflicted were 50 foxes, 47
skunks, 29 cats, 12 bats, 10 dogs, three horses,
a cow, and a rabbit.
Responsibility for coping with rabies
in North Carolina is split between state public
health veterinarian Lee Hunter and Todd
McPherson, chief of virology at the state
Laboratory of Public Health. Both have
reportedly stretched resources to the limit: the
lab, set up to test 1,400 animals a year,
expects to test 5,900 in 1997, even after tightening
criteria for testing. Small rodents and
rabbits are no longer tested because they rarely
carry rabies for long before dying.
Raccoon rabies most often infects
humans through an intermediary, such as a
free-roaming cat or dog. Thus in Montgomery
County, Pennsylvania, health officials
in February sent out 2,500 warnings to
neighbors of the Norristown State Hospital,
after a rabid cat bit a woman outside a nearby
home, and tried to catch and kill the estimated
25 cats who lived on the hospital grounds.
They reportedly caught 17. But despite the
potential for rabies crossing over through cats
and dogs, it rarely occurs. Rabid raccoons
have appeared around Arlington, Virginia for
nearly 20 years, yet a free-roaming cat who
scratched or bit a woman and two children in
early April was the first rabid cat found there
in about 40 years. Westchester County, New
York, has had rabid raccoons since 1990, but
the first rabid dog there in 40 years wasn’t
detected until December 4, 1996. Since 1992,
308 of the 351 Massachusetts cities and towns
have reported rabid raccoons, but a rabid dog
found circa December 1, 1996, was the first
in the state since 1949.
Until the northern spread of the midAtlantic
states raccoon rabies pandemic, U.S.
rabies outbreaks came mostly in the south.
But except in North Carolina, southern raccoon
rabies outbreaks have been relatively
small and self-contained. Although raccoons
are heavily hunted with dogs in the south, as
in much of the northeast, they are not trapped
in high volume in the south because below the
snowbelt they don’t grow thick winter coats.
Kentucky had a recorded high of 62
rabies cases in 1992, but only 20 in 1993, had
43 in 1996, and had only nine during the first
four months of 1997. Paradoxically, the most
human post-exposure cases in Kentucky, 230,
were recorded during 1994, when the disease
was evidently at low ebb. Post-exposure treatment
often becomes necessary not because a
person has been bitten by a confirmed rabid
animal, but rather because the animal either
can’t be located or has been dispatched by a
means such as bludgeoning or shooting in the
head which precludes testing brain tissue to
see if rabies is present.
Dade County, Florida, hadn’t had a
confirmed rabies case since two rabid raccoons
were found in 1994, but another rabid raccoon
turned up in late March, picked up by a
motorist who thought he was an accident victim
and identified by veterinarian Jorge Larin.
Volusia County, Florida, had six
rabies cases last summer: three in foxes, one
each in a raccoon, a bobcat, and a kitten.
Confirming the value of aerially distributing
oral rabies vaccine pellets, Texas
reports headway against a canine rabies epizootic
underway in 21 southern counties since
1988, when it apparently entered from
Mexico. Statewide, Texas had 351 rabies
cases in 1996 among 11,371 animals tested,
down from 590 cases in 13,814 tested in 1995.
Only 13 coyotes and six dogs tested positive in
1996, down from 75 coyotes and 36 dogs a
year earlier. The major carriers in 1996 were
bats, involved in 120 cases; skunks, 78 cases;
and gray foxes, 59 cases, down the 134 cases
a year earlier.
Texas has air-dropped vaccination
pellets three times since 1995, initially hitting
29 counties, expanding coverage to 77 counties
this year. The Texas pellets use dog food
as bait rather than fish meal, to attract coyotes
and foxes rather than raccoons. The vaccination
rate among wild coyotes in the target
areas is estimated at 75%; 70% vaccination of
a population at risk is believed to be the minimum
necessary to squelch an epidemic. The
program costs about $4 million a year. Before
the air drops began, two Texans died of
canine rabies: a Starr County woman in 1991,
and a Hidalgo County boy in 1994.
The spread of the disease was reportedly
accelerated by hunters who translocated
foxes and coyotes to be chased with hounds in
closed pens. A rabid Texas coyote infected an
Alabama hound in December 1993. Then, in
1994, eight dogs got rabies at a Florida chase
pen, obliging 26 people to receive post-rabies
vaccination, while a 20-square-mile area was
placed under animal transport quarantine.
Advisories against translocating
foxes and coyotes for chase pen use eventually
came from the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, the American Veterinary Medical
Association, the Council of State and
Territorial Epidemiologists, the National
Association of State Public Health Veterinarians,
the Southeastern Association of Fish and
Wildlife Agencies, and the International
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Skunks are the primary rabies carriers
in the midwest, accounting for 144 of 237
rabid animals found in 1996. Only 141 rabid
animals were found in Iowa in 1995, before
trapping rebounded, and just 90 in 1994,
when trapping was lowest.
The Arkansas Department of Health
has posted rabies alerts in Benton, Boone,
Logan, and Scott counties, which have 18 of
the 40 cases of rabies reported in the state over
the past 12 months. Sixteen of the 18 cases
involved skunks, as have 26 cases overall.
Other victims included a cat, a cow, a dog, a
pet ferret, and several bats.
Bat rabies remains the most widely
distributed form and the most deadly to
humans, in part because bat bites tend to
resemble insect bites, and victims are often
bitten unawares. The Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention warned on May 9 that
neither Linda Bow, 42, of Cumberland
County, Kentucky, who died in October
1996, nor a 49-year-old man from Missoula
County, Montana, who died in December,
had any recollection of contact with bats,
found in the chimney of Bow’s home and near
the mill where the man worked. Both died of a
rabies strain carried by silver-haired bats.
The warning was precipitated in part
by an incident in Broward County, Florida, in
which 13 children petted and played with a bat
who died of rabies two days later.
The public got another heads-up
about bat rabies in early April, when
Washington governor Gary Locke, his wife,
and their month-old daughter Emily all
received post-exposure vaccinations. Locke
had discovered a bat at the governor’s mansion
in Olympia while changing the baby’s diaper.
He chased the bat into the mansion ballroom,
but the bat disappeared before exterminators
arrived. Several days later, Locke chased a
bat out an open window. None of the family
appeared to have been bitten, but two
Washingtonians have died of bat rabies in the
past two years, a 65-year-old Shelton man on
January 19 and a four-year-old Lewis County
girl on March 16, 1995, and the Lockes were
not inclined to take chances.
Of the 22 human rabies cases contracted
in the U.S. since 1980, 19 have
involved bat rabies. All forms of rabies can be
successfully treated post-exposure, but the
treatment must start within 14 days of the bite.
Oregon officials were meanwhile
puzzled by their 56th reported case of rabies
over the past decade––a cat, in rural Douglas
County, found December 29, who apparently
contracted bat rabies when most bats were
hibernating. Free rabies vaccinations were
given to the pets of about 200 local residents.
A reminder of the importance of
vaccinating pets came in April from Littleton,
New Hampshire, where all members of two
families received post-exposure vaccination
and 31 pets were killed, including 14 cats,
nine mice, five hamsters, and three gerbils,
after one cat was found to be rabid. Eleven
previously vaccinated dogs also received postexposure
shots, while six puppies were placed
in a six-month quarantine. Ten days earlier,
14 people received post-exposure shots in
Cross City, Florida, after being bitten by a
chow-mix puppy who was found abandoned
with a littermate on March 27.
The resurgence of rabies is likely to
derail a campaign led by Frank Perino of East
Northport, New York, to start a tourism boycott
against Hawaii until it abolishes a 120-day
quarantine of all dogs brought to the island
from elsewhere. Perino, who is blind, recently
canceled a planned vacation to Hawaii
because he couldn’t take his guide dog. His
effort is supported by Rep. Gary Ackerman