Barbara Senecal, 72, of Brunswick stands Tuesday near the spot where she was attacked by a rabid fox on June 17. With the bite wounds on her ankles and claw marks on her hands finally healing, she says: “I just really hope people will be careful walking around outside.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

BRUNSWICK — Town officials are advising residents to avoid wild animals, especially if they are acting strangely, and to not leave pets or children outside unsupervised following the fourth incident involving a rabid fox in the last three weeks.

Barbara Senecal shows the healing wounds on her hand from the rabid fox that attacked her on June 17. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Brunswick Animal Control Officer Heidi Nelson received confirmation from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention late Monday that the fox killed by a man on Bouchard Drive last week was rabid. She talked to officials at the CDC by phone on Tuesday morning and they urged the town to send out informational fliers to residents.

Town officials, however, wanted to quickly reach as many people as possible so they opted to issue a press release and a Code Red alert providing information to landline phones in Brunswick using the E911 system Tuesday.

The statement issued by Brunswick Police Cmdr. Mark M. Waltz advised anyone who encounters an animal acting strangely to go inside and call 911. He also urged people to make sure all animals that can be vaccinated are current on their rabies shots.

Waltz also called the rash of rabies cases an “epidemic” in his release, but a spokeswoman for the Maine CDC cautioned against characterizing the incidents in that way.

“I know that the word ‘epidemic’ has been floating around out there and we would say it’s a high number of cases given the time period and geographic area, but it’s not an epidemic,” Emily Spencer said. “Maybe a cluster would be a more appropriate word.”

There hasn’t been a case of human rabies in Maine since 1937, Spencer said.

Brandon Radzilowski poses Tuesday in his sister Kristin Bubar’s backyard. He was working on his sister’s patio Friday when a rabid fox came out from the wooded area. He hit the fox over the head with a shovel after it came at him. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The latest encounter involving a rabid fox occurred Friday, when Brandon Radzilowski was helping to build a patio at his sister’s house on Bouchard Drive and noticed the fox in the backyard.

“At first I thought it might have been OK because it was just playing with a ball, and I’ve seen videos of foxes playing with kids’ toys in yards before,” said Radzilowski, who was visiting from Maryland.

But his sister had warned him there recently had been multiple cases of rabid wildlife in Brunswick, so he kept an eye on it.

“I came outside and he kind of ran in the woods a little bit. I started working and I noticed he was over in the neighbor’s yard kind of stalking their cat,” Radzilowski recalled.

The cat entered the neighbor’s home through a cat door, and Radzilowski said he was concerned that the fox might follow. As he approached, the animal ducked under the deck. But once Radzilowski was on the deck, the fox re-emerged and became aggressive.

“When it started coming at me I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not taking that chance.’ Its mouth was wide open and it was briskly coming right at me,” Radzilowski said. “So I picked the shovel up and whacked it. It flew a couple feet and landed on the side of his yard,”

Radzilowski said he then delivered another blow to put the animal out of its misery. He never came into physical contact with the fox.

“I felt bad to kill it,” said Radzilowski, who was relieved when he learned that the animal tested positive for rabies.

THE BIG RED FLAG: AGGRESSION

Nelson, the animal control officer, said she waited to get the test results before notifying the public of the incident.

“We don’t want to cause mass hysteria where everyone wants to go get out a shotgun and shoot animals on their property,” she said.

It was already starting to happen Tuesday, when police said they had received calls from residents asking if they should shoot animals they saw on their properties. Nelson reiterated that people should go inside and call 911. The CDC also said that it wasn’t going to test animals that hadn’t had contact with humans or pets.

The main carriers of rabies are foxes, raccoons, skunks and bats, but animals are out and about this time of year, just like people, Nelson said, and just because they are out during the day, doesn’t mean they are rabid.

The big red flag is aggression. Generally, wild animals won’t interact with humans unless they are threatened.

“What we’re looking for is the fox or animal being the aggressor, seeing us and chasing after us,” Nelson said. “They’ll be attacking cars, will bite a tire. Skunks will stand and start circling like they’re dizzy.”

And just because an animal looks mangy doesn’t mean it’s infected. Foxes are very susceptible to mange and will pluck out their fur.

Nelson said two scenarios involving the rabid animals could play out: town residents could continue to see rabid animals for an extended period or the infected animals will wander off and die without exposing other animals.

Fortunately, the window during which an animal with the rabies virus can infect another animal or human before it succumbs to the disease is only about 10 days. The virus needs the host alive to survive.

Anyone who encounters a possibly rabid animal and can’t get inside or somewhere safe should “try to grab anything you can to put between you and that animal. A lawn chair, whatever. Get something between you and get to safety.

The recent uptick in rabies incidents spurred The Veterinary Clinic on Maine Street in Brunswick to urge its customers through social media to make sure their animal’s rabies shots are current.

“My basic concern is just making sure that all animals are vaccinated, and that’s what’s going to protect them,” said Dr. Erica Partham of The Veterinary Clinic.

Maine law requires that cats and dogs be vaccinated for rabies.

While some people think indoor cats don’t need the vaccinations, they are still in danger of exposure to rabies. Wild animals carrying the virus, such as a small bat, can enter a house without homeowners being aware and their tiny teeth means their bites can go undetected, Partham said.

To help address a public safety issue, The Veterinary Clinic will accept walk-ins for rabies vaccinations.

‘BASICALLY LIVING IN A SEA OF RABIES’

There have been 33 confirmed cases of rabies in animals so far this year in Maine, according to the Maine CDC. Six cases were confirmed in Cumberland County and there have been eight confirmed cases in Piscataquis County. Nearly all of the animals with rabies were raccoons.

Last year there were 67 cases of rabies in Maine, including two cases in Brunswick, the CDC said.

Those cases haven’t been limited to rural areas. On June 13, a woman on High Street let her dog outside, where it got into a fight with a skunk that later tested positive for rabies.

Later that week, a rabid fox attacked a Brunswick woman who was retrieving her mail. The fox then bit a neighbor who tried to help her. Both residents were treated at Mid Coast Hospital and the fox was shot by a police officer. The woman, 72-year-old Barbara Senecal later said the fox “looked vicious” and knocked her off her feet and bit her on her legs and arm.

On June 25, a 95-year-old man was repairing the deck on his home on Breckan Road when a fox approached him. Robert Galen used a broken plank to club the fox, which later tested positive for rabies.

“I’d been aware of the rabies incidents in Brunswick so I almost instinctively hit this animal on the head with the club I had, fortunately, in my hand,” Galen said afterward.

There also have been rabies cases reported outside Brunswick.

James Ross of Lisbon used a meat cleaver to kill a fox that had entered his kitchen after he left the doors to his house open last month.

And in Rockland, a South Carolina woman was bitten last week by a rabid river otter that ran onto a beach and chased people. Laurie Nevins, who was visiting Maine for vacation, captured the attack on video. The otter was shot by police so it could be tested for rabies.

“It does seem like right now you’re experiencing an uptick in the number in a compressed time frame, but in the United States and in Maine you’re basically living in a sea of rabies,” said Richard Chipman of Brunswick, coordinator of the Wildlife Service’s National Rabies Management Program.

OFFICIAL: NO REASON TO ‘HIT THE PANIC BUTTON’

About 92 percent of the 5,000-6,000 rabies cases in the United States each year are in wildlife. The other 8 percent are mostly domestic animals.

“Generally we don’t have a lot of cases where we have wildlife attacking people,” he said.

Despite the uptick in animals testing positive for rabies in Brunswick, Chipman said people should continue what they’re doing.

“I would certainly not hit the panic button,” he said. “We do the same things that we would do normally. Enjoy wildlife from a healthy distance.”

This level of rabies incidents is not likely to continue over the next month or two.

“It’s not like once you start having a lot of rabies in the population those individual animals are going to stay in the landscape all summer being sick and spreading rabies and being aggressive,” he said. “They’re not going to be in and around for very long once they start showing signs.”

Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge said the biggest thing town can do now is get word to residents.

“I think vigilance is the key right now for people,” he said.

Darcie Moore can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

filed under: