BATH — After months of rabid animal attacks in the southern Midcoast, Bath officials voted unanimously to partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set wildlife traps in the southern end of the city to help stem the spread of rabies.

The trapping process, which will cost $26,611 from the city council’s contingency fund, will take place over 10 days before the end of February.

“The USDA cannot guarantee this is going to reduce rabies,” said Peter Owen, Bath’s city manager. “What we’re looking at doing is reducing the population of rabies-carrying animals with the idea that it will reduce the probability of interaction with the public.”

The traps will not be lethal or harm the animal, but every wild animal caught in the traps will be euthanized. This is because it is impossible to confirm whether an animal is infected with rabies while it is alive because brain tissue needs to be tested.

An animal can be rabid without showing symptoms. Once an animal starts displaying symptoms, it will die within 10 days, according to Rachel Keefe, a state epidemiologist.

“It’s an extreme measure,” said Owen, “but clearly from the numbers we’re faced with some extreme events. With that we feel the obligation to bring something forward that is extreme.”

“This is long overdue,” said Councilor Jennifer DeChant. “We have all been very worried, regardless of where we live in the city, about this condition that continues to increase.”

The push to complete the trapping process before the end of the month is connected to the foxes’ breeding season, according to Shevenell Webb, furbearer and small mammal biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. In about two months, the foxes will have pups that will be dependent on their parents.

“We want to be humane about this,” said Webb. “We don’t want to take parents away from their pups.”

At least 10 people have been attacked by foxes in the past 13 months. Most of the attacks happened in Bath but there were three fox attacks in West Bath already this year.

“In total, the Maine Center for Disease Control confirmed 16 (cases of rabies) in Bath in 2019,” said Owen. “In 2018, there were two cases of rabies. Between 2015 and 2017, there were none. From 2018 to 2019 we have an over 700% increase in cases of rabies.”

State wildlife biologist Scott Lindsay said earlier this month that the spread of rabies among mammals active in the winter would drop. Foxes do not hibernate but their activity decreases.

The latest fox attack was in a small fishing community near Sebasco Harbor in Phippsburg. A fox bit a 27-year-old woman who was walking to her car on Bakers Wharf Road, according to Cpl. Aaron Skolfield of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. He said she went to the hospital for treatment.

Webb attributed the continued rabies cases to the mild winter the Midcoast has experienced. Rabies clusters are all related to animal populations. A higher animal population poses a higher risk of disease and the spread of disease. It is difficult to trap foxes in an urban area like Bath and they have few predators.

“I think what we’re finding in the Bath-Brunswick area is they have a high population of people and a high population of wildlife,” she said, which results in more interaction between the two.

Oral rabies vaccinations have also been considered but are expensive and wouldn’t be effective in an urban area like Bath, Webb said. The USDA airdrops fishmeal baits carrying raccoon rabies vaccinations in northern Maine to keep rabies from spreading further north. It’s a multi-year, multi-million dollar project that still only results in about one-third of animals in the program area with immunity to rabies.

Rabies is transmitted primarily through bites and exposure to saliva or spinal fluid from an infected animal. It infects the nervous system of mammals, making the infected animal unusually aggressive. Vaccines are 100 percent effective in combating the disease in humans. Rabies is fatal if left untreated.

State wildlife experts have urged people to take measures to protect themselves, such as keeping an eye out for animals acting strangely, carrying a stick or pepper spray, and not leaving out food that could attract the animals.

The city will hold a public meeting with USDA officials for residents to ask questions about the trapping process. The date of the meeting has not yet been set.

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