In Topsham, a gray fox ran across a parking lot, repeatedly attacking a man working at a scrap metal yard. A woman in Hope drowned a raccoon that latched onto her thumb. And in Scarborough, a man was bitten by a red fox that darted into the yard behind his home in May.

All three animals tested positive for rabies.

The recent series of high-profile encounters between people and rabid animals – including a rabid bobcat that attacked an 80-year-old New Hampshire woman – should serve as a reminder that the disease is out there, animal experts say. While the incidents might suggest that the risk has increased, Maine is actually on track for a typical year for rabies cases in wild animals, state data show.

“The good thing to take away from these horrible incidents is that rabies is endemic in Maine’s wildlife population,” said Rachael Fiske, an assistant state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “We stress to people to do their best not to handle wildlife at all, and in particular wildlife that is trying to interact with you. They’re wild for a reason.”

The incidents come as Maine enters what is typically the busiest three-month period for confirmed rabies cases. Overall, however, the number of cases is down from a year ago when Maine was in the midst of an especially bad year for the disease.

Twenty-five animals had tested positive for rabies in Maine in the first six months of 2017, compared with 40 during the same period last year. Last year was one of the three worst years in the past decade, while Maine is on track to see an average number of rabies cases in 2017.


Seventeen of the 25 confirmed cases this year were in raccoons, while four skunks, one gray fox and three red fox also tested positive, according to data kept by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been no confirmed cases in humans, dogs, cats or livestock this year. Last year, two cats and a cow tested positive for rabies.

Over the last decade, the number of rabies cases in Maine has fluctuated widely. In 2006, there were 127 confirmed cases, but that was the only year the number topped 100. In the last five years, the highest number was 87 in 2012. Since then, there have been 43 cases in 2014, 31 in 2015 and 76 in 2016.

“Last year was slightly above average. While there’s not a whole lot of science as to why this happens, we often see an increase in cases after a mild winter,” Fiske said. “This year seems to be running a bit lower than last year.”

All mammals are capable of carrying the viral disease, which affects the central nervous system. Human cases are extremely rare. Since 2003, there have been only 34 cases of human rabies reported nationally, and none in Maine. The last human case in Maine was in 1997, according to the CDC, and resulted in the person’s death.

Once symptoms appear – typically fever, encephalopathy (damage to the brain), drooling and hydrophobia (extreme fear of water) – rabies is almost always fatal in animals. Humans can survive the disease, but it is considered serious.

Chris Creps, the animal control officer in Scarborough, said incidents like the one where a fox bit a local man are not as common as encounters between wild animals and domestic companions like cats and dogs. People should watch out for abnormal behavior from wild animals – including aggressively approaching people – or for animals with a face full of porcupine quills.


“If you’re close enough to an animal while you’re outside and you’re doing something that’s agitating it, it’s likely to attack you,” he said.

Jessica Jackson, a wildlife rehabilitator who serves as animal control officer for Raymond, Naples and Casco, said that while it is good to watch for abnormal animal behavior such as lethargy and aversion to water, it is also important for people to remember that seeing a wild animal during the day doesn’t always mean it’s sick.

“They have babies this time of year and they need to feed those babies. They often come out during the day to hunt,” she said. ” A raccoon that walks across your yard in the day does not necessarily have rabies.”

Animal control officers say the best way people can protect their pets and livestock is to keep them up to date on their rabies vaccines. State law requires all dogs and cats – including felines that stay inside – to be current on vaccines, Fiske said.

Jackson recommends that pet owners also keep an eye on their dogs when they let them outside to minimize encounters with wild animals.

“Common sense goes a long way when you’re working with animals in Maine,” she said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @grahamgillian

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