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Death Behind the Mask: Raccoon Rabies

Published 06/15/03
By Barry Kent MacKay
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 34 Number 2, Summer 2003

Around the early 1950s, the “arctic fox” strain of rabies entered Ontario from the north. The province’s abundant populations of red foxes and striped skunks are particularly vulnerable to that strain of rabies, and Ontario soon had the dubious distinction of being the “rabies capital of North America.” As I spent so much time “in the bush” and handled wild animals from childhood as I aided my mother with her work in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, I was familiar with rabies and took vaccinations hoped to protect me in event of contact with rabies.

I also saw the suffering of rabid animals and the panic that rabies outbreaks can engender, leading people to fear all wild mammals who come near. Too often that fear resulted in trapping or shooting any fox or skunk. Indeed, hunters used rabies as an excuse for killing animals even though research showed that trapping and shooting wildlife had no impact on rabies epidemics. As a child I recall my own beloved companion dog, Taaya, causing a panic on our quiet residential street when her normal drool after a good romp was perceived as the “foaming at the mouth” symptom of a rabid animal.

A long program of research and testing by the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources culminated in the production of a remarkably effective oral vaccination. When foxes and skunks (and other animals) ate the vaccine-treated “baits,” they became essentially immune. Incidences of the fox-skunk strain of rabies plummeted and Ontario began exporting its rabies-fighting expertise to other jurisdictions.

The so-called raccoon strain of rabies was first reported in Florida in the early 1950s. In 1977 it suddenly appeared along the border of West Virginia and Virginia after raccoon hunters brought infected animals from Florida to the region to be used to help train their ’coon hounds. This strain of rabies began a rapid and dramatic spread outward in all directions. It reached New York in 1990, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont in 1994, and in 1999 a raccoon was diagnosed as having the disease in an Ontario village across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg, NY. The rabies threat re-entered my life.

Agonizing Death

Rabies is a viral disease that can, in theory, affect any warm-blooded animal. Left alone, rabies outbreaks wax and wane in arrhythmic cycles. The disease attacks the nervous system. It causes selective paralysis of muscle systems, invariably leading to agonizing death. In the early stages it may not produce obvious symptoms, and yet as the virus spreads through the victim, body fluids become infected. Transmission is through transference of infected body fluid, as happens, for example, when saliva enters the blood stream through a bite. The asymptomatic “dumb rabies” stage of the disease may last a long time in some animals, specifically bats, so that their bite can be infectious even though they show no disease symptoms.

By the time the infection reaches the stage called “furious rabies” the victim acts strangely. A rabid skunk, fox, or raccoon will appear to lose all fear of humans. Fur is often unkempt. Paralyzed throat muscles prevent the animal from swallowing, thus saliva forms around the lips (the “foaming mouth” characteristic) and the doomed victim will fear water (“hydrophobia” — fear of water — is an obsolete synonym for rabies) and often will attack both animate and inanimate objects, chewing and biting, sometimes ferociously. Death soon follows.

The bite of a rabid animal is the normal route of infection, although the virus can pass through the mucous membrane, so that close contact with an infected animal’s body fluids can be dangerous even in the absence of a puncture wound. Conversely, a bite that does not puncture the skin, or bring saliva into contact with an open wound or mucous membrane, will not transmit the disease. The rabies virus apparently does not survive passage through mosquitoes.

The disease spreads when infected animals bite other animals during the furious stage. While any mammal (including domestic livestock) may become infected, those with canine teeth and biting habits are most likely to spread the disease. Most human infections derive from bites from bats, cats, dogs, and wild mammals. Oddly, some human and/or animal populations seem less susceptible than others to given strains of rabies.

A bite from an infected animal is not an automatic death sentence. That is because the virus remains at the bite site for several days — long enough, in most parts of the Western world, to obtain inoculations that are very effective so long as they are delivered before the virus reaches the nervous system. Human mortality in impoverished countries with inadequate health care delivery can be distressingly high. Human deaths from rabies are rare in North America.

But, the bite victim must take that precaution, and in order to encourage compliance, the public health systems must maintain a constant barrage of educational material focusing on the need to have appropriate medical assistance immediately upon suspicion of infection. I grew up amid a welter of sensationalist media reports of each new rabies “outbreak,” and was exposed to lurid posters of enlarged, gargoylelike bat’s faces, and images of fierce dogs hung in veterinarian’s and doctor’s offices, all designed to encourage the precautions required to protect humans from this horrid form of death.

Since our companion dogs (and cats allowed outside) are far more likely to encounter a rabid animal and be bitten, most animal lovers would agree that as a precaution the minor risk associated with pre-exposure inoculation is deemed worth the benefit. Even so, as a precaution, upon exposure even inoculated animals are typically quarantined for ten days to two weeks — time enough for the infection to take hold and generate symptoms in dogs and cats. If a wild mammal from an area where rabies occurs bites a human, it is usually killed so the brain can be analyzed for presence of the virus. As a precaution, the bitten victim is usually given post-exposure prophylaxis, in the form of a series of intramuscular doses (whose reported great pain is quite innocuous; any discomfort is a tiny price to pay given the consequences of contracting rabies).

Pre-exposure immunization is also available for humans, highly recommended (and often mandatory) for anyone at high risk, including wildlife rehabilitators who work with common vector species such as skunks, bats, canids, and, of course, raccoons.

Raccoons in Our Midst

A public health official for the District of Columbia once showed me a film, taken at night with infrared light, of a backyard garden. “This,” he said, “is what we have in downtown Washington, D.C.” The entire yard seemed to swarm with waddling, rounded shapes — dozens of them. In monochromatic tones I could discern the dark masks and ringed tails of what appeared to be a veritable herd of raccoons — something never seen in wilderness or rural populations. “They’re being fed,” I was told. “This lady loves raccoons and puts out dog food each night.” This was at the epicenter of the disease as it began its spread across eastern North America.

Raccoons are found from coast to coast across southern Canada and in every contiguous state in the U.S., as well as virtually all of mainland Mexico and much of Central America, with non-native populations introduced into Russia and Europe. What is astounding about these appealing and intelligent animals is their adaptability, particularly to the urban landscape. They like cities, and a territorial urban raccoon may occupy a range with a diameter as little as 0.3 km in the city, as opposed to a range five or more times that size in rural or wilderness settings.

Raccoons den in hollow trees, caves, logs, and culverts — and garden sheds, factories, office buildings, and houses. They frequently climb into chimneys, or make their way into attics or under soffits. They will raid unprotected garbage, reach under eves to extract house sparrow eggs or babies, scoop goldfish from ornamental garden pools, dine on the produce of kitchen gardens, and help themselves to barbecue scraps, or dishes of pet food left on back porches, or seeds and suet placed in bird feeders, all in addition to more natural food, including berries, cherries, grapes, acorns, oats, crayfish, earthworms, insects, rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes, turtles, frogs, etc. In short, to a degree greater than any other wild mammal in their native range, these strong, manually dexterous, and omnivorous animals closely associate with humans and come into frequent contact with companion animals. Additionally, raccoon babies — absolutely adorable in manner and appearance — are often pressed into service as “pets” and invariably attract the attentions of young children. Raccoons with rabies are potentially a massive risk to humans.

However, at press time, according to the Centers for Disease Control not a single human death has yet been attributed to the raccoon strain of rabies. One such tragedy was widely reported, but it turned out the media had jumped the gun, and further analysis showed that the victim, a girl who loved animals, actually died from the rabies strain carried by silver-haired bats — a migrant species often to be found clinging to the sides of buildings.


One of the major tools in dealing with the spread of raccoon rabies has been containment. To date, nowhere has it been more successful than Ohio. Here a massive aerial drop of oral vaccine baits was deposited along a “barrier” that extended from Erie County, PA, down the Ohio-Pennsylvania border south past Charleston, WV. Ohio health department officials assured me in conversation that it was also deemed necessary to kill any raccoons from the barrier zone that wound up in wildlife rehabilitation. Such tactics have been applied in each state (and province) that raccoon rabies has reached.

Does that sort of thing cause a conflict?

You bet it does, and nowhere did such conflict reach more horrific proportions than in my own backyard, in a viciously fought battle between two people (or two organizations) I have long known and admired for their respective actions on behalf of animals.

On one side of the conflict is Rick Rosatte and the rabies unit of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, whom I have long known for their indefatigable efforts to stamp out the fox-skunk strain of rabies in Ontario, ultimately ending the ghastly wars on wildlife that used to attend every rabies outbreak. Make no mistake — it is the kind of work, involving animal research and trapping, for which I would have no stomach, but I would be remiss in not acknowledging that it has saved large numbers of animals from an appalling death, or from panicked over-reaction and subsequent persecution.

On the other side are Donna DuBreuil and the Ottawa-Carlton Wildlife Centre. DeBreuil had set extremely high standards for wildlife rehabilitation, with emphasis on urban mammals. That, to a significant degree, means raccoons. Her methodology includes use of hotlines to defuse and prevent urban wildlife conflicts, and to use stringent training of highly motivated volunteers to provide fostering and “soft release” of non-imprinted, human-raised wild mammals. The Centre saves thousands of animals each year, while also helping to smooth relations between the public and wildlife, to the joy of local municipal politicians highly supportive of DuBreuil and her work.

Problem Exploded

The problem exploded July 2002 when the Ministry of Natural Resources declared a “high risk zone” for raccoon rabies that included much of the area from which animals arrived at the Ottawa-Carlton Wildlife Centre. Any raccoons in the zone must be killed.

The zone included Ottawa itself, although at press time raccoon rabies has yet to occur there. In July — the height of the summer rehab season — the Ministry abruptly changed the rules for licensing rehabbers. Contingent upon licensing of wildlife rehabbers to handle rabies vectors was agreement that no mammal was to be released more than one kilometer from where it was found — an impossible situation for modern wildlife rehab procedures that involve “bunching” orphans of the same species and age and releasing them in easy stages into supportive habitat, with all precautions taken to assure that they are healthy and inoculated against rabies.1 Rehabbers pointed out that the one kilometer rule is unduly arbitrary; for a small mammal, such as a vole, it can be a huge distance to traverse, and may serve to maintain isolation of infected areas, but for a large mammal, such as a fox or coyote, or even a raccoon, it is a relatively small distance.

Both sides avow an interest in protecting the public from rabies.2 Both sides claim concern about raccoons. But as one reporter put it, “So far, the greatest threat to raccoons is the Ministry of Natural Resources itself. When it discovers a rabid raccoon in the wild, it kills all the raccoons within a five-kilometre radius. The ministry has killed 7,000 raccoons so far. Rabies has killed 101. Of all the raccoons killed by the ministry as a precautionary measure, only 0.2 percent were actually rabid.”

The Ministry began an aggressive campaign last summer, swooping down on volunteer rehabbers in eastern Ontario. With tactics that were reminiscent of a SWAT team visit to a crack house, it even raided the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre. Tempers flared, media swarmed, arrests, lawsuits, and charges and counter-charges erupted as rehabbers penned protests, the public signed petitions, and passions flared to incandescent intensity. Innocent and quite healthy animals were seized and taken to unknown fates, and gentle folk who were trying to do good things for both people and animals were left in anger and disarray, some suddenly facing outlaw status. Last December the Wildlife Centre, which had enjoyed immense public and local political support, closed down.

DuBreuil was charged with 13 counts under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of Ontario, eventually having 10 dropped in return for a guilty plea on the remaining 3 charges. On February 27, 2003, she was fined $600. Her volunteer foster care colleague, Linda Laurus, was fined $100 for refusing to turn over a family of four baby raccoons to gun-toting wildlife officers. Both sides declared victory. Ultimately 34 raccoons and 1 striped skunk were seized from the Centre. Ironically, the Ministry will keep the 35 animals at its own Codrington research facility over the winter, and release them next spring — essentially what would have happened anyway.

Whether or not the heavy-handed tactics of the Ministry were justified in terms of stemming the tide of raccoon-rabies in Ontario, what must be measured is the impact of the loss of wildlife rehabilitation on public health in eastern Ontario. Wildlife rehabbers are the first and most important line of defense the public has against rabies and other wildlife diseases.

Putting the Public at Risk

Donna DuBreuil could have done what some wildlife rehabbers privately told me they would do, and sign the permits but go ahead with rehab as usual when the 1 kilometer release rule proves unworkable. They know the Ministry lacks the resources to enforce any such rule. But DuBreuil is fiercely confident and won’t play that game. That puts the public very much at risk as they must cope with wildlife conflicts, and desires to help orphaned baby animals, without the very expertise and safety that the Centre provided. Meanwhile the Ministry, after giving the Ontario rehab community ten days to express its concerns with the new rules, has yet to come up with a response, or an efficient licensing program that can accommodate both sides. The province’s rehab community also is somewhat divided between those in eastern Ontario where raccoon rabies is now a reality,3 and those in the rest of the province, at least some of whom think that the personality clash between Rosatte and DuBreuil led to the current nasty level of polarization between rehabbers and the government.

In stark contrast stands the successful handling of the raccoon rabies problem in Connecticut. There Laura Simon, president of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and the urban wildlife director of The Fund for Animals, serves on the state Rabies Advisory Committee. In 1991, Connecticut also played a heavy hand, but soon realized that, as Simon put it, “it was far better to create a program in which trained, vaccinated rehabilitators could take in rabies-vector species rather than risk having the untrained and unvaccinated public trying to rear the animals.”

After a bad start, New York State now works with, not against, rehabbers. Those dealing with rabies vector species must be separately licensed, after taking a rigorous one-day course. Mary Catherine Kuruziak, newly appointed president of the Ontario Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Network (OWREN), took the course and told me that she hoped Ontario would develop a similar program.

Of the 21 states in the eastern time zone, only North Carolina mandates the destruction of rabies vector species. Ten states changed policy to allow rehabbing of rabies while the remaining ten never prohibited it at all. And Texas, with three major rabies strains to contend with, does allow rehab of vector species.

The experience with other strains of rabies indicates to us that raccoon rabies can be controlled, eliminating the “need” for mass destruction of wildlife, but it has to be a cooperative effort that ultimately will protect animals and the public, alike.


1. Rehab and release procedures do vary, but it is generally recognized that raccoons “prepared for release in groups learn coping and social survival behaviors which they might not learn otherwise.”

2. Statistically speaking it could be argued that the risk of death from bee sting is far, far greater than the threat posed to people by any rabies, and yet comparatively little public resource is put into bee-sting death prevention.

3. The way the new rule works, if an animal comes from the “high risk zone” it must be killed, no matter if it shows symptoms or not, whereas if it comes from outside the zone, it can be rehabbed, but must ultimately be put back within a kilometer of where it was found. As roadways are used to help outline the “high risk zone,” it means that if an animal is picked up on one side of the road, it must be killed, but if it does not get picked up until it crosses the road, its life can be saved.

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