February 23, 2018
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  • A photo snapped by a local resident depicts what appears to be a fox with mange walking along the road.
    A photo snapped by a local resident depicts what appears to be a fox with mange walking along the road.
  • Baits containing oral rabies vaccine are dropped by helicopter across Anne Arundel County to help immunize wildlife and reduce the number of sick raccoons that might pose a threat to humans and pets.
    Baits containing oral rabies vaccine are dropped by helicopter across Anne Arundel County to help immunize wildlife and reduce the number of sick raccoons that might pose a threat to humans and pets.

Sick Wildlife Sightings Leave Citizens Concerned

Dylan Roche
View Bio
September 20, 2017

Public Departments Can Help, But Which One To Call Depends On The Situation

Riviera Beach resident Laura Barefoot was concerned when she noticed her dog had started losing his hair and was itching himself constantly. “The vet diagnosed him with mange, and asked whether he’d been in contact with any animals with mange,” she said.

No, she replied, as far as she knew, there hadn’t been any contact at all. Neither her other dog nor her cat had contracted mange, and her fenced-in yard prevented any of the pets from wandering around on their own. “It was most likely a fox that ran through my yard, brushed up against something, and my dog brushed up against the same thing,” she said. “I’ve seen foxes from time to time, but I’ve never seen one that looks like it has mange.”

Although Barefoot’s dog recovered with oral medication, her experience is one that could happen to anyone. It also raises an important question — if someone encounters a sick animal in their yard, or their pet or child comes into contact with a sick animal, who handles the situation?

It might come as a surprise to some, but Anne Arundel County Animal Control doesn’t handle sick wildlife. According to Robin Catlett, administrator for Animal Control, the department is responsible for wildlife that has found its way into people’s indoor living space, such as a bat that has flown inside a house, a raccoon that has wandered in through a dog door or a snake that has slithered in through a crack somewhere. This does not include interior spaces not used as primary living space, such as an attic or a crawlspace.

The misconception persists, however, that Animal Control handles sick wildlife, and calls about mangy foxes are common for the department to receive. “Unfortunately, mange is a common issue that foxes in our area deal with,” Catlett said. People can identify foxes with mange by observing their diurnal (versus nocturnal) activity and a general lethargy or disinterest in hunting. “They have trouble retaining heat, so they’ll go outside when it’s sunny,” Catlett said. “They hang out at an easy food source, like if you have trash outside. The fox learns that’s a common, easy place to get food, and they’ll keep coming back.”

The only instance in which Animal Control should be contacted regarding a sick animal is if a human has had contact with the animal and there is risk the disease was transferred. Animal Control is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling 410-222-8900.

Otherwise, concerns regarding sick wildlife should be directed to the Department of Natural Resources at 410-260-8540. “If people are seeing stuff, call that number, and it gets routed to a local wildlife response technician,” said Karina Stonsifer, a director of DNR’s wildlife and heritage services. “They will get in touch with the individual to get [more information]. We get a lot of calls about truly sick animals, but we get a lot of [false alarms].”

In the case of rabies, simply removing sick wildlife isn’t enough to solve the problem, especially when rabid animals pose a threat to humans and pets. The Anne Arundel County Department of Health has spent 18 years using vaccine-laced bait to stop rabies from spreading among local wildlife. This year, crews set out by helicopter and automobile on the morning of Thursday, August 31, to distribute approximately 85,000 pieces of bait countywide, primarily in raccoon territory. “At the time the program started [in 1998], there were 96 positive terrestrial animals; we’re down this year to date to four,” said Tom Burja, zoonotic disease specialist with the Department of Health. “So it’s effective in reducing the number of rabid animals in the community.”

Because Anne Arundel is the only county in Maryland that does this, Burja does not expect DOH to ever fully eliminate rabies; however, he pointed out that what was once one of the highest rabies populations has gone down to one of the lowest.

The program, known officially as the Raccoon Oral Rabies Vaccination (ORV) Project, starts annually as close as possible to the beginning of September, when the young of the year are old enough to search and find the bait. Any earlier and young animals won’t be independent, but by the time October and November arrive, raccoon are foraging less frequently for food.

The baits — small packets filled with vaccine — are intended for raccoons but are safe for pets and other animals that might find them. According to the Department of Health, the vaccine is a “low human health risk,” but children, pregnant women, anyone with a compromised immune system and anyone with chronic skin conditions are advised to avoid handling the bait.

For further information on any departments and programs, refer to www.aacounty.org/departments/animal-control, dnr.maryland.gov or www.aahealth.org. Each website has information on what the department does and does not handle, along with helpful tips on what community members can do to keep themselves, their families and their pets safe when it comes to wildlife.

When in doubt, it’s best to bear in mind the candid advice that Stonsifer offers to people regarding sick or injured animals: “Do not approach it. Do not try to pick it up or try to care for it. Let a trained staff member come out and handle it.”

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