On Foxes and Rabies in Bath

Posted Saturday, January 4, 2020 in News

On Foxes and Rabies in Bath

Fox, courtesy of maine.gov.

by Gina Hamilton

Last month, the Bath City Council agreed to spend $26,611 to trap and euthanize foxes, skunks, and raccoons, vectors for the rabies virus among wildlife. This Monday, they met to reconsider their vote after a group of residents opposed the program, but voted to uphold the original vote.

Bath City Manager Peter Owen, citing data from the Maine Center for Disease Control,  said that there had been 16 confirmed cases of rabies in Bath in 2019, compared to two in 2018 and none between 2015 and 2017. In one year, rabies increased by more than 700 percent.

There had been 18 attacks by rabid animals on people and household pets, which are the only cases tested. Animals that attack livestock are not tested, according to Bath's animal control officer, Ann Harford. The actual rate of rabies locally could be much higher.

The citizen group, Save the Fox, has a Facebook page. It is led by Bath artist Kdb Dominguez.

The trapping program is expected to begin by the end of the month.

The citizen group asked Bath to consider a rabies vaccine baiting program, much like the one being used in more rural areas, including the north woods, to stem the spread of rabies. According to the USDA's website, oral rabies vaccine, or ORV, designed for raccoons but effective in foxes and skunks as well, has virtually eliminated rabies in gray foxes in Texas, and in the fall of 2019, covered parts of northern Maine where 347,000 ORV baits were distributed by airplane and vehicle.

USDA said that the bait is safe for other wild animals and pets who may come into contact with it.

However, according to the USDA, it is the wrong time of year to distribute ORV bait, and in any case termed the effort "ineffective" because animals would come from other areas.

That would presumably be true of trapping and euthanasia programs as well, on the other hand.

USDA said they have to perform the trapping program now, before the females become pregnant in the spring. The agency said they would release obviously pregnant animals.

However, unlike the other mammals targeted, foxes have a complex social life around the birth of kits; the females need the assistance of their mates to support the growing offspring and to keep the females fed and healthy as they nurse. The trapping program is likely to cause harm to the next generation, as well as kill healthy animals, since the only way to identify rabies is to examine the animal's brain, which can only be done after death.

Foxes and coyotes are apex predators in the Bath area. Although coyotes are not the targets of this particular cull, they too have a strong social life which can be disrupted, causing greater problems than it solves. When apex predators are removed from an ecosystem, there are other unintended consequences -- a rise in rodent populations, for instance -- and a more desperate attempt to obtain food for growing young, bringing the surviving mate into ever closer contact with humans and pets.

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