Advice from Brunswick rabies forum: Don't feed the animals

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BRUNSWICK — After several attacks in town and four wild animals testing positive for rabies this summer, residents had the chance to ask questions about the virus last week. 

A forum sponsored by the Brunswick Police Department Aug. 9 featured a panel of state officials and was moderated by Animal Control Officer Heidi Nelson.

It was organized after a fox that attacked four people on Moody Road July 27 tested positive for rabies. The same weekend, a dead skunk found on Range Road also tested positive.

According to Michele Walsh, state veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, “cluster” cases of rabies like this tends to burn themselves out.

“I can’t give you any concrete day that that’s going to happen, but we do tend to assume that that’s what will happen, because that’s what happens routinely and has happened in Maine for many, many years,” Walsh said. 

Rabies is transmitted in the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite. Wildlife biologist Scott Lindsay said most wild animals do not come in contact with one another except during breeding season and when they are raising their young.

According to the officials, vaccinating pets, avoiding wild animals, and keeping an outside light on at night as a deterrent are some of the ways residents can protect themselves.

Responding to a question about spotting a rabid animal’s behavior, Lindsay said an animal infected with rabies will exhibit behaviors that “are not seen in an otherwise healthy animal.”

“Essentially the virus does influence the animal through its nervous system, so it not only potentially would strike out at animals or potentially people, but even inanimate objects as well,” he said. “That’ s another thing you’re looking for as far as warning signs.”

If a person is walking and sees a healthy raccoon, he said, the animal might stare at the person briefly and walk away.

A rabid animal, however, “is much more likely to attempt to make contact with you or your pet,” he said, and may also be indifferent to humans if intent on making contact with a pet.

Police Chief Richard Rizzo said he thought bats should be “one of the bigger concerns in Brunswick” because they are more likely to gain entry to houses.

Nelson supported Rizzo’s concern when she said via email on Aug. 13 that she has removed nine bats from Brunswick homes this summer, six of which tested negative for rabies. Two of the bats were taken out of a home on the day of the forum last week, and another was “too decomposed for testing.”

Emer Smith, field epidemiologist for the Maine Center for Disease Control, said if people just “walk in and find a bat in the house” it typically does not put them at “sufficient risk” for rabies exposure.

However, if a person finds a bat flying around the house after waking up at night, or finds an unattended child or a “deeply sleeping or incapacitated” person in the bat’s vicinity, that could put them at risk. 

Nelson said bats’ teeth are so fine people may not notice they have been bitten when asleep.

“We would ask that instead of shooing the bat out of the house, that you would try to safely trap the bat,” Smith said, “(so we can send it out) for rabies testing and rule out whether or not that bat actually had rabies in the first place and put you at risk.” 

Nelson said after calling a professional like herself or a game warden, people should trap the bat in one room by closing the door and putting a towel underneath. 

Grant Connors, an animal damage control cooperator for the state, said humans feeding wild animals exacerbate the rabies issue by leading to overpopulation.

“Bottom line is, we as humans, we are our own worst enemy,” Connors said. “If you really want to deal with the problem yourself stop feeding the birds.” 

He went on to say rabies is nature’s way of “controlling the population” because humans feeding animals leads to females giving birth to more young than they can naturally support.

Brunswick resident Betty McNally, whose daughter was bitten by a rabid bat in her Bowdoin home in April, said she and her husband ended up with an $11,000 medical bill after the ordeal, and said “families can be wiped out” by the cost of paying for treatment after rabies exposure. 

“Don’t say it doesn’t happen; you cannot appreciate what it feels like until it happens to you,” she said. 

Ultimately, Walsh said rabies in humans is a much bigger issue in other countries around the world, where many people primarily get infected by stray dog bites.

“This is an enormous problem, our problem seems like nothing,” Walsh said, while admitting it does not feel that way to the families affected. “I also applaud all of you for coming out and speaking about this tonight; this is a terrifying disease.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo speaks to a panel of state wildlife officials at a forum on rabies at Brunswick Town Hall Aug. 9.