A rabid gray fox bites a woman, raccoons invade an abandoned house, and a black bear once again causes a ruckus in Claysburg.
All those incidents have made news in our area over the past week or so.
Earlier this month, three persons were bitten by a rabid beaver along a stream in northeast Philadelphia, and in April, a fisherman was bitten by another rabid beaver in Chester County. If these events weren't all true, such a litany of unwelcome human-animal encounters would almost sound like the bizarre plot of some campy sci-fi movie.
Photo for the Mirror by Walt Young
Raccoons are beautiful and interesting animals that are, unfortunately, the most common carrier of rabies in Pennsylvania.
Like anyone who enjoys and appreciates our wildlife resources, I always find it disturbing to hear about any conflict between humans and animals. Especially troubling, however, are reports of rabid animals, and worst of all, someone being bitten by an infected animal.
Rabies is a horrific disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system and is always fatal if untreated. Because the rabies virus is present in the saliva of an infected animal, the disease is usually transmitted through a bite.
Once the symptoms of rabies manifest themselves, the disease usually progresses through three stages during a 10- to 12-day period. Over the first two or three days, the animal exhibits behavioral changes. During the next three or four days is when the infected animal is the most dangerous as it becomes deranged and hyperactive with the tendency to try to bite anything near it. Finally, it will begin to suffer loss of coordination and paralysis before slipping into a coma followed by death, usually caused by respiratory failure.
In the United States, rabies used to be rare outside of the southeast region of the country. During the 1970s, however, an epidemic of rabies occurred in raccoons throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Raccoons remain as the most common vector species for rabies in Pennsylvania, followed by skunks, foxes and bats. All mammals are susceptible to the disease, as evidenced by the recent beaver attacks in southeast Pennsylvania. Although rare, even deer and squirrels with rabies have been documented in Pennsylvania.
Fortunately, rabies now accounts for only one or two human deaths a year in the US. That is due largely to the availability of an effective vaccine for the disease and the mandatory vaccination of pet animals in many areas. Of course, vaccinating all the raccoons, skunks, foxes and other animals that live all around us isn't possible, so using some common sense will help to prevent an unpleasant encounter most species of wildlife.
Always keep a safe and respectful distance from any wild animal and especially one that is behaving strangely. I know I probably don't have to tell that to most of you who spend any time outdoors, but for some reason, there are lot of folks who seem compelled to try to feed or pet any critter they see. Simply put, if you can get close enough to any wild animal to do that, it is probably sick or hurt, and therefore a situation to avoid. Also remember that raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are all largely nocturnal creatures, so any time you see one of them in the daytime, it is almost certainly to be sick or injured.
One of the reasons rabies, along with other diseases such as distemper and mange, is so prevalent nowadays is that populations of most species of furbearing animals are at some of their highest levels ever. Raccoons in particular are incredibly numerous. If you know what raccoon tracks look like, just spend some time along the shore of any river or stream in the area. If you can find an area of soft mud or sand that doesn't have some fresh coon tracks, just come back the next day it probably will. Wild mink are plentiful along most waterways too.
Trapping traditionally kept most furbearers at manageable numbers. But a few decades ago the empty-headed Hollywood phonies and animal-rights whackos joined forces to make the wearing of fur no longer to be fashionable. Sadly that misguided effort was successful enough to depress the market for furs. As the prices for pelts declined, so did participation in trapping. So instead of harvesting a valuable and renewable natural resource each season, we have allowed furbearer populations to expand tremendously, making them more susceptible to disease.