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SPCA warns of rabies threat: Leave young wildlife alone

Attention animal lovers: Do not touch/pet/pick up that cute/abandoned/injured little fox/raccoon/skunk. You are dooming it to die.

Recently, an Erie County resident picked up an abandoned baby skunk by the side of the road. Another man and his son pulled over and "saved" three baby raccoons, feeding and cuddling them after their mother had been hit by a car.

All of those animals had to be euthanized and tested for rabies. Rabies can only be diagnosed through an examination of brain tissue.

"Even though they are cute and cuddly, it is a death sentence for that animal whenever a human, or your pet, comes into contact with them," said Barbara Haney, director of wildlife for the SPCA Serving Erie County. "I just wish the message would get out there."

This is the time of year when many young, wild animals appear lost or orphaned because their parents left them for a period of time or died due to rabies, accidents and other causes. Compassionate individuals often attempt to "rescue" the young creatures, exposing themselves to rabies by touching them with their bare hands.

Even without an animal bitten, rabies can be transferred through saliva and enter the human body through cuts, wounds, or the mucus membrane of the eyes, for instance, said Peter Tripi, senior public health sanitarian with the Erie County Health Department.

It's not just wild animals like raccoons and bats that are prone to contracting and transmitting rabies, but unvaccinated pets and strays. Tripi mentioned one cat that is currently stuck in a six-month quarantine because it came home with a bat in its mouth and the owner didn't think to save the bat's body for testing. A sheep was even diagnosed with rabies last month after it was acting odd and eventually died.

So far this year, Tripi said, 285 animals have been tested by the county's Public Health Lab for rabies, and 150 county residents have undergone post-exposure rabies vaccinations, which involves multiple injections.

Orphaned animals lead to more rabies shots among residents

Rabies-prone animals that have been mishandled by people must be euthanized and tested so that the people who handled them can be spared rabies vaccinations if the test turns out to be negative.

"This is the worst thing we have to do," Haney said. "This is awful. This is not what we're trained for. It's based (on) ignorance. People think they're being kind."

She recommended that people concerned an animal may be abandoned or injured first call the SPCA wildlife number at 875-7360, ext. 247, for advice. That number is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with after-hours paging available until midnight. If an animal must be moved, it should never come into contact with bare skin.

Finally, Haney said the SPCA continues to have a dire shortage of wildlife rehabilitators for raccoons. There is a multiyear process for certification, but anyone willing to undertake the lengthy time commitment is encouraged to contact the SPCA wildlife department.

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