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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

The World’s Rarest Deadly Disease Costs Money — and Healthy Animals’ Lives

Raccoon Strain Rabies: The Threat That Keeps On Giving

Published 02/19/13

Fear is a powerful tool for manipulating opinion. When you fear, you are most likely to put aside analytical thought, scrutiny and healthy skepticism because, well, you are afraid. Governments realize this, as explored in such books as “False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” by Mark Siegel (John Wiley and Sons, 2005), and “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” by Naomi Klein (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). But hey, most people don’t read, they react. That is something governments understand. To work, fear needs the molehill of truth from which a mountain of fear can be constructed.

Consider rabies. It’s virtually 100 percent fatal once it takes hold. To get it, the virus, contained in the bodily fluids of an infected animal, have to come into contact with your own bodily fluids. And then, you still don’t have the disease. But if you wait long enough (no one wants to test how long, but maybe a couple of weeks) it reaches your nervous system. That’s it; game over. You die, horribly. Massive medical intervention may have saved one or two human victims, but to all intents and purposes it is fatal. Between the time of contact with infected bodily fluid, such as saliva or mucous, and the virus reaching and growing in the nervous system, you must be inoculated to survive. The really good news is that you do have that extra time to get that inoculation — but you must hurry.

And if you expect to handle animal species most likely to have rabies, called “rabies vector species” or RVS, you can be inoculated in advance of possible exposure, just to be safe. Many wildlife rehabbers, field zoologists, animal control agents and veterinarians get the pre-exposure inoculation. Others get the post-exposure vaccine, used an estimated 40,000 times per year in the United States to protect individuals thought to have been exposed to a rabid animal. Better safe than sorry.

Any warm-blooded animal, even, if rarely, including birds, may be susceptible to rabies. In the common vernacular, there are various “strains” of rabies that act in different ways, and affect different animal species to different degrees, and which tend to evolve into new, or “emerging,” strains.

In the 1950s a virulent strain of rabies entered my home province of Ontario from the north, possibly transmitted by arctic foxes at the southern end of their range, or maybe sled dogs, spreading into red foxes and striped skunks, but also infecting companion dogs and cats and livestock. The disease came in “outbreaks” during which time there were often panicky reactions. Perfectly healthy foxes and skunks often were shot on sight, and so were some healthy pet dogs.

That was then. A diligent, innovative program by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) of providing oral vaccines to RVS, dropped from light aircraft in a grid pattern over rural areas, or manually placed in urban and suburban areas, plus a massive effort, backed by municipal laws, to vaccinate companion dogs and cats, slowly brought the disease under control, nearly eliminating it from the province. For example, there were 24 cases of rabies in Ontario last year, all of them bats, plus a skunk, a dog, a cat and a cow. There was also one human, Toronto’s first human rabies victim in 81 years. All indications are that he contracted the disease in Hispaniola, where there are no striped skunks, foxes and, keep this in mind, no raccoons.

As fox/skunk strain rabies reached Ontario, a strain of rabies to which raccoons were especially susceptible was discovered in Florida and adjoining Georgia. It remained there for nearly three decades, until the late 1970s, when hunters apparently transported infected raccoons northward, to the Mid-Atlantic States. That region became epicenter for the spread of raccoon strain rabies in all directions, including north, toward Ontario, where the fox/skunk strain was in steady decline thanks to pet vaccinations and the field work of the MNR.

Suddenly there was an MNR rabies unit, heavily funded, with very little disease to fight, and in the spring of 1999 Ontario’s Public Accounts committee recommended reducing funding for the MNR’s Trap, Vaccinate and Release (TVR) program. Shortly after the Rabies Research Unit of the MNR countered with a full operation plan to deal with raccoon strain rabies, should it reach Ontario. Sure enough, on July 14, 1999, the raccoon strain of rabies appeared in eastern Ontario. This was just about two weeks after the MNR had issued a full-scale plan for dealing with raccoon rabies, just in case it appeared.

The MNR’s response to raccoon strain rabies has included an experimental Point Infection Control program whereby in urban areas all raccoons and skunks who can be caught within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of where an animal infected by raccoon rabies is found, are killed. Within a further two kilometers, all raccoons, cats, skunks and foxes who can be caught will be inoculated to create a “buffer zone,” a tacit admission of the value of maintaining inoculated animals within the population. Keep that in mind.

But most of Ontario is rural, where the TVR program has led to the killing of all raccoons within a 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) radius of the point of infection, plus inoculations of vector species beyond that. The program is somewhat discretionary and adaptable, but it has led to thousands of animals being killed with only a tiny percentage of them testing positive for rabies. In fact, by June 2002, the MNR’s publication, the Rabies Reporter, was able to say that raccoon strain rabies had “all but been extinguished in Ontario.”

Oops. When need for government funding ceases, so can government funding!

So a few weeks after that announcement we heard that, no, there was still a concern and on Aug. 23 a letter from the MNR to the Ottawa Citizen referenced “a number of raccoon rabies cases that had been discovered near the northern border of the old risk area, indicating a movement toward Ottawa.” Hey, that’s the nation’s capital! What to do?

Actually, there appeared to be no indication of any movement of raccoon-strain rabies toward Ottawa, and if there was any “movement” at all, it was in the other direction, into more rural areas. But in order to qualify for a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant of $815,000, the MNR needed some 1,500 raccoon samples from depopulated areas. In all, from July 1999 to 2004, 9,116 wild mammals were killed, of which 99.8 percent did not have rabies!

Fortunately the farce was exposed by the good work of Donna DuBreuil and the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre (OCWC), a state-of-the-art wildlife rehabilitation facility specializing on mammals. More of it in a moment.

To test a sample costs from about $400 to $500 each. If that cost in money and the lives of healthy animals is to be paid, it begs the question of just how dangerous is raccoon strain rabies? Didn’t I say rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal?

It doesn’t take long to count the number of recorded human victims of raccoon strain rabies. One. That’s right, one human death, in the United States, in 2003. He was a 26-year-old Virginia office worker with no known contact with raccoons. He was not an outdoorsman, nor the kind of person likely to come in contact with raccoons. In short, we don’t know how the disease was transmitted, only that it is as rare in humans as is numerically possible without being nonexistent. One.

This is not to minimize concerns, only to try to put them in some kind of rational perspective.

But be careful. On Sept. 12, 2002, the MNR in all its armed and armored glory swooped down upon the volunteer ladies and university summer students caring for orphaned mammals at the Ottawa Carleton Wildlife Centre, seizing young animals — all animals who had come from areas where the raccoon strain rabies didn’t even exist, and had at any rate been vaccinated against the disease. In two operations they took a total of 34 baby raccoons, five skunks, and one fox. In total we taxpayers funded some 20 MNR staff transported from across the province, as well as city police in what one witness said was the largest show of force he had witnessed outside a major drug bust. And to think that the MNR whines it can’t find funds to pay for gas to fuel the cars of game wardens, much to the delight of poachers.

Any compassionate person who has nurtured a puppy or kitten will understand the added anguish of these dedicated volunteers when they learned the animals were taken to a research facility and were separated into small cages for almost eight months, in clear violation of the most basic standards of humane animal husbandry and international wildlife rehabilitation. We believe the animals were used in some form of research, but all of this is hush-hush to the nth degree, and no wonder. It’s a shameful episode.

The MNR has consistently undermined Ontario’s wildlife rehab community, splitting it into factions. It’s done this by implementation of two quite absurd restrictions placed on rehabbers dealing with mammals. The first, the 15-kilometer rule, states that no “orphaned” mammal (except bats) can be released more than 15 kilometers (9. 3 miles) from its point of origin, the place of birth. The other says that no mammal (except bats) brought to rehabbers as an adult can be released more than 1 kilometer (about half a mile) from where it was found. The reason is to prevent spreading a disease that the animals might have. Why everything from a mouse to a moose would fail to spread disease if released 14 kilometers from their birthplace, but will do so if released 16 kilometers away, is never explained. The term “arbitrary” comes to mind, right after “absurd.”

But what’s the harm?

To be sure some licensed rehabbers dutifully acquiesce, thus reducing likelihood of raids and loss of their permits. The reason most do not comply is because the rule needlessly violates best practices for rehabbing mammals. Baby mammals orphaned by whatever cause, all evidence indicates, do better when raised in groups simulating natural broods, where there are several animals of the same age. This is called “bunching.” These animals are then moved to an enclosure adjacent to the habitat where they will be released. When they have adjusted, they are given the option of leaving, but food and shelter are maintained for them to return to, until they are fully used to being on their own and are undergoing the instinctual “dispersal” normal to young mammals. These animals are all healthy, inoculated against rabies and other diseases and parasites. This process is known as “soft release,” and is in keeping with practices endorsed by a variety of rehab organizations.

Of course it is normally not possible, with this method, to have all the babies, from diverse places, released within 15 kilometers of where they were born.

The alternative is “hard release,” whereby the babies are marked as to where they came from and then if raised together, are separated and simply placed in habitat that is within 15 kilometers of where they originated, if known. If not known, presumably they should be killed. There may be a volunteer with a soft release facility within that zone, but often there is not and even if there is, it too often means the animals may be released entirely on their own.

Of the obedient “hard release” rehabbers, many admit rather openly that they really release the animals in what they feel is the best way, and simply falsify their records to tell the MNR what it wants to hear. It’s not as if they are likely to get caught.

And really, you can’t think the MNR really cares, because in fact it doesn’t regulate how far animals are taken by the largely unregulated animal removal pest control industry. They move animals wherever they want. So do hunting interests. No, the target is the conscientious, and truthful, rehabber. That’s the kind of person Donna DuBreuil, founder of the Ottawa Carleton Wildlife Center, is — a fiercely intelligent, informed and honest person who refused to play the game, thus wound up in court.

The upshot of all this is that many highly qualified rehabbers have either quit, not started, or gone underground. They could be charged if found, although as I say, I don’t think the MNR’s stated concerns are truthful. But by being secretive, the services of these underground rehabbers are not easily accessible to the public.

This brings us to a second situation, the “do-it-yourself” well-meaning and compassionate individuals who want to help the orphaned or injured animals they find, but can’t locate a rehab facility to take the animals. The rehabbers who play the game the MNR’s way, whether truthfully or not, don’t have nearly the capacity demanded by society. Once they have reached capacity they are faced with either turning folks away or providing substandard service. There is desperate need for more qualified rehabbers. But instead of the animals going to people who know how to protect themselves, the animals and other animals from rabies, other infectious disease, or even bites and scratches, the animals are raised via, at best, Internet or pet store information by inexperienced, unqualified people. It seems to me that is where there is, by far, the greater risk of spreading disease or putting people at risk of contracting zoonotic diseases.

There is a role here for the MNR to work with the wildlife rehabbers, but they don’t want that. Even the 1 kilometer rule for adult mammals, while usually both workable and sensible (we want the animals to go back into territory they are most familiar with) can be an impediment to effective rehab. For example, increasingly we see beavers killed by municipalities wanting to get rid of them. True, most of the “problems” beavers cause can be resolved without doing that, but sometimes their habitat is destroyed and there simply isn’t a suitable place to put them within 1 kilometer!

Why does the MNR do this? I can only speculate, but I think there is a collective concern that revenue, their revenue, is at risk if people don’t fear wildlife. Rehab emphasizes in inherent worth of the individual animal.

If people knew how much was spent to prevent a disease that has never killed a Canadian, when there is so much need for health care dollars, would the MNR’s rabies unit receive fat largesse? If people saw animals as individuals, might there be fewer sales of hunting, trapping and fishing permits?

Whatever the reason I write this blog as a warning: Be prepared for another “outbreak” of raccoon strain rabies as we approach budget time in Ontario.

Blogging off,
Barry

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