THORNDIKE — A litter of 2-month-old Labrador retriever puppies was euthanized recently after an encounter with a rabid skunk at their home off Reed Road.

Mike Topich, a 47-year-old amateur drummer, also underwent a series of 10 rabies shots after killing the skunk with his bare hands. He said that nine of the 11 puppies from the third and last litter of his 8-year-old pet, Molly Belle, were due to leave his homemade outdoor kennel just four days after the aggressive skunk attacked by burrowing under the kennel’s fence.

“They were going to new homes, new lives,” he said.

The attack on Topich’s puppies is the second rabid skunk case in Thorndike this year. The first was confirmed in mid-April, according to data compiled by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statewide, there have been about 50 confirmed cases of rabid animals this year, including 30 raccoons, 15 skunks, two cats, two gray foxes and a bat.

“We knew that by January of this year we were seeing a spike,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the disease control center.

For each of the past three years, the state has had about 65 confirmed rabies cases. This year, with 51 cases so far, the number is on pace to crack 100. Of the past nine years, only 2006, with 127 cases, broke the century mark.

“People should be aware that the incidence is up,” Pinette said. “We’re finding more and more people and animals are being exposed.”

She said the mild winter probably had something to do with it. “You have a lot more animals around that are rabid that have picked up the virus,” she said.

Those animals that might have otherwise died in the winter have survived to pass along the virus. They are also able to travel more freely in mild weather, increasing the risk of exposures, she said.

Pinette said people should avoid contact with wild animals, and shouldn’t feed animals, even squirrels. “Those exposures are what put us at risk,” she said.

After the encounter with the skunk, Topich inspected the dogs for injury. He didn’t yet realize that the wriggling puppies at his feet were already as good as dead.

All of the puppies escaped serious bodily injury, but each had been exposed to the virus through direct contact with the skunk or through each other.

After reporting the incident, Topich was told by the Center for Disease Control that attempting to keep the puppies alive would be prohibitively expensive.

Each dog would have to be raised separately and individually quarantined, and subjected to a series of mandated protocols in order to ensure their health and the health of the public.

“It became overwhelming. I realized I wasn’t clinically set up to do any of that,” Topich said. “I waited almost a week before I broke down and said that this had to be done.”

Thorndike’s animal control officer, Carol Visser, said that she understands the tough decision Topich was faced with.

“You can’t underestimate the seriousness of the disease,” she said. “It may have seemed harsh to euthanize the entire litter of puppies, but rabies is a progressive neurological disease that can be transmitted to any mammal, including humans, and is almost invariably fatal.”

Visser arranged for the puppies to be euthanized at the Searsport Veterinary Hospital without any out-of-pocket expenses for Topich.

“I took them all down and I just said my last good-byes,” he said. “I left them in the quarantine kennel and that’s the last I saw them.”

Meanwhile, Topich said Molly Belle doesn’t understand where her puppies are.

“She goes over to where the kennel used to be and looks,” he said. “You can tell when she’s sad.”

The tragedy has motivated Topich to spread awareness about prevention, as a means of honoring the pups. He plans to create an awareness poster incorporating pictures of the puppies, and to raise funds for animal charities.

“You have to find the good in everything or else it drives you nuts with the grief,” he said.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com