Three people have been bitten by raccoons in Letchworth State Park so far this year, officials said, and all three victims are receiving a series of painful anti-rabies injections.
The latest incident occurred Wednesday, and because the rabies threat has reached New York's Souther Tier, Wyoming County health officials are concerned about the large raccoon population.
None of the raccoons that bit the people was captured to test for rabies, so the victims have begun the series of injections. Without treatment, rabies is fatal.
Three women were bitten, with two of them in open picnic areas, officials said. In addition to Wednesday's bite, the others occurred in recent warm-weather months.
"One lady was having a sandwich at a picnic table when a raccoon jumped on the table," said Owen E. Eddy, Wyoming County's senior sanitarian. "When she tried to shoo it away, it grabbed the sandwich and bit her and then ran off."
Eddy said that it is virtually certain that actual rabies, largely carried by migrating raccoons, will reach Wyoming County and Letchworth State Park in a couple of years, five at most.
After that, the rabies virus, if it continues to follow its normal river valley course, is likely to follow the Genesee River Valley into the Rochester area.
"It's just a matter of time," Eddy said.
Two of the Letchworth raccoon bitings this year occurred at midday at picnic tables in the Lower Falls area. The third occurred at a campfire in the A-Cabin area, Eddy said.
"Two raccoons were removed from the Lower Falls area, but we don't know if either was the one that bit two women," Eddy said.
Eddy said that the raccoon-carried rabies threat has been moving north from Maryland through Pennsylvania and New Jersey at a 40-mile per year rate. Last month, Western New York's first report of a rabid raccoon occurred at Addision in Steuben County.
Rabies may be transmitted to people by a bite or scratch or indirectly by infecting their pets, health officials say.
Edward A. Hamilton, manager of Letchworth State Park, said that several thousand raccoons probably inhabit the 17,000-acre Letchworth State Park. Last year, a state-authorized trapping program captured 175 raccoons, half the annual number that one study recommended.
Hamilton said that no decisions yet have been made about a new program this year.
Hamilton attributed this year's more aggressive raccoon behavior to more stringent sanitation practices at the park. Because the park has substituted dumpsters for the more easily toppled garbage cans, raccoons find it more difficult to obtain food. A reduced food supply occurring at a time when the females are still caring for their young has emboldened them, he said.
"We used to have to search for them; now they pop out at us," he said.
Because of the feared arrival of the rabies organism, county health officials are beginning to conduct a surveillance program.
"Periodically, we will have the heads of raccoons tested for rabies," Eddy said.