Lili Dobreva was cleaning out a rental house last month when her eyes fell on a black, furry shape lying in the driveway. It turned out to be a baby skunk the size of her hand. When Dobreva poked it with a piece of wood, it started moving its mouth and paws.
“Honestly, it looked like a little stuffed toy,” she said. “It was so adorable.”
Dobreva carried the abandoned creature – clearly sick and missing an eye – to the porch and rinsed the fly and maggot eggs from its ears and remaining eye and gave it water. Then she spent half an hour making calls to try to get it some help.
What the 19-year-old didn’t realize was she had condemned the skunk to death the moment she touched it. She also put her own health at risk.
Last month, 75 residents were referred to Erie County Medical Center for rabies exposure vaccinations, the most of any June in five years. The county had 61 vaccination referrals during the first five months of the year.
Wildlife and health experts worry about what will happen the rest of the summer. The region’s mild winter has prompted concern from officials at the Erie County Health Department, the SPCA Serving Erie County and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, who have met over the heightened rabies exposure this summer.
“The cases are just so many and so fast, we all wanted to be on the same page,” said Peter Tripi, a Health Department senior public health sanitarian. “The more people are exposing themselves, the more it scares us.”
The specter of rabies exposure has made health and wildlife officials more intent on spreading a public service message urging people not to touch wild animals without expert assistance, to vaccinate their domesticated pets, and to find more people willing to get special wildlife rehabilitation certification to help save high-risk rabies species like raccoons.
Health Department data does not indicate more animals than usual are testing positive for rabies. But the mild winter may have led more animals than usual to have bigger and healthier litters. In some cases, health and SPCA officials say, mothers are giving birth, then succumbing to rabies, orphaning their young. In other cases, people assume young animals have been abandoned because they don’t see the parent nearby, but that may not be the case.
From May through June, the SPCA took in roughly 45 juvenile, rabies-vulnerable animals. The Health Department euthanized and tested at least another 44. Most were young raccoons and foxes.
Raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats are more vulnerable to rabies than other animals. But symptoms may not surface for days. They also have the potential to transmit rabies to their offspring through their saliva.
The urge to pick up and tend to cute, helpless animals seems irresistible.
“Unfortunately, if somebody does have contact with a rabies vector species, it’s a death sentence for that animal,” said SPCA wildlife specialist Barbara Haney.
The only way to test an animal for rabies is to examine its brain tissue.
After Dobreva told the SPCA she found and handled a sick baby skunk, the SPCA referred her to a Health Department employee who asked her to leave the baby skunk in a box on the porch and to wash her hands.
A few days later, the employee called her back and told her the skunk did not have rabies and she didn’t need to get vaccinated. He also broke the news that testing the skunk for rabies required having to euthanize it.
“I started blubbering like a whale,” said Dobreva. “I had no idea.”
Taking no chances
The rabies virus is most commonly transmitted through a bite and is otherwise fairly difficult to contract. But if a human is infected with the virus and begins showing symptoms, the disease is almost always fatal. For that reason, wildlife and health agencies follow conservative protocols and urge people not to touch any wild creature before speaking to someone from the SPCA, Health Department or DEC for advice and instructions.
Last month, an injured young fox was treated by the SPCA and seemed to be recovering well until it started showing neurological symptoms of rabies – walking in circles, acting confused, Haney said. Only specially trained people had direct contact with the fox, but the organization became worried about other volunteers who cleaned the fox’s cage and washed its food dishes without gloves.
Seventeen volunteers ultimately received rabies exposure vaccinations as a precaution.
One Town of Aurora family went through the series of rabies vaccination shots last month after being bitten and scratched by their family cat Kitty.
“It was rough,” said Mark, a West Falls resident who asked that his last name not be used to protect his family’s privacy.
The family’s story is a cautionary tale for those who think an unvaccinated house pet is safe from rabies exposure.
The family had owned Kitty for 13 years but did not vaccinate her because she never went outside, he said. But one day, Kitty suddenly bolted through an open door while the family was letting the dogs out. The cat remained missing for two months.
Mark’s 11-year-old son finally found the cat in bushes by a neighbor’s house in May and brought it inside. For several days, all seemed well. Kitty gained weight and seemed like her old, affectionate self for the thrilled family, he said.
Then Mark got a text message at work from his wife, who said the cat was acting crazy and had bitten both his son and wife. The next day, the cat dove under their bed at 3 a.m. and Mark went to get her. The cat bit him on the wrist. Then she started charging at him and antagonizing the dogs. Mark carried a broom with him to defend himself.
He isolated the cat in the basement, then moved her into a dog crate in the garage that night.
The next day Mark called the Health Department. The cat died later that day and tested positive for rabies.
The family of five trekked to ECMC for the first of four rounds of shots. The first round was the worst.
Mark endured eight shots in his shoulders and thighs the first visit, a combination of the rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulin – a short-term, protective booster that protects the body from the rabies virus until the vaccine itself gains full effectiveness. The number of shots a person gets on the first visit depends on the person’s weight.
“It seemed like you were walking with a charley horse all day,” Mark said. “We were all kind of sore and achy.”
Tripi, the Health Department administrator, said that every domesticated cat, dog and ferret should receive the rabies vaccine. Mark’s story shows why even the most sheltered pets – cats, in particular – can run the risk of exposure to the disease.
He also pointed out that cost should not be a barrier for anyone. The Health Department offers free rabies vaccination clinics throughout the year. The next set of free vaccination clinics are scheduled for Sept. 14, 20 and 28 in Amherst, Springville and West Seneca, respectively.
Not every animal can be helped – particularly raccoons. Animals considered to be at highest risk for rabies must be referred to a wildlife rehabilitator with advanced certification, and not enough local people have it, said Haney, the SPCA wildlife biologist.
“We have people in our area who can rehabilitate bats,” she said. “Some will do skunks. We have no one in Erie County who does wildlife rehabilitation for raccoons.”
That’s a serious problem for dedicated animal lovers like Haney. The SPCA accepted 48 raccoons in May and June – none of them improperly handled by people – and 36 of them were considered orphaned young. It’s likely their mothers died of rabies.
But they suffered the same fate – they were all euthanized.
“This is what we’re going through right now,” Haney said. “It’s horrible for us.”
Haney made an appeal for anyone interested in becoming a wildlife rehabilitator and gaining raccoon licensing. It’s not a quick or easy process, she said, but the SPCA would gladly assist anyone interested in undertaking the process.
Meanwhile, people should leave young raccoons alone.
“The best option is to leave them in the woods and hope that they make it,” said Ken Baginski, regional wildlife manager for the DEC. “Nature is cruel sometimes.”