Wild animals with rabies have triggered a crisis in Bath: In 2019, 16 wild animals tested positive for rabies, 26 sick animals were dispatched and 11 of 18 fox attacks resulted in a person being bitten or scratched. Reports of sick animals and attacks in Bath and nearby communities have continued this year.

There have been no human fatalities; timely rabies treatment is fully effective. But with fear levels rising, city leaders want to take action. The centerpiece of that action has been proposed: a trapping program.

Its goal – to protect human health and safety – is worthy, but its method is not: The program proposes to capture and kill the land animals that transmit and circulate rabies. However, removing animals to control the spread of rabies, particularly without a rabies vaccine component, has proven to be an ineffective and futile strategy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division would carry out the trapping plan under a $26,000 contract with the city of Bath, overseen by Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Cage, rather than leg-hold, traps are proposed, so pets and wild animals that are not rabies vectors could be released. All rabies vector species – gray and red foxes, raccoons and skunks – would be killed.

A grassroots group is fighting the plan. They point out that it would remove healthy animals and animals with immunity to rabies.

Others see it as an obvious, common-sense approach: reduce the number of animals that can transmit rabies, reduce rabies prevalence.

Why, then, is DIFW carefully pointing out in a recent news release that the program is “not specifically for rabies control”?

Knowledgeable rabies researchers and wildlife management professionals in Maine and across the world know what our state’s own rabies management guidelines state clearly: “The reduction of wildlife populations is not considered a viable approach to rabies management.”

Population reduction, otherwise known as culling (selective slaughter), has been employed worldwide for decades by those tasked with the job of eliminating rabies, and it has failed.

Rabies researchers now understand the spread of rabies is driven by multiple factors beyond population density, such as the movements of individual wild animals and family groups about their territories. As one raccoon rabies researcher explains, “If the movement, foraging, mating, or other pertinent behaviors of host species are not well understood, then disease-control strategies such as local population reduction can be ineffective.”

Erin Rees, a Canadian research epidemiologist who evaluates the effectiveness of rabies management strategies, told me in an email exchange that localized culling programs like the one proposed for Bath will likely not have an impact and that they might “make things worse as the remaining hosts redistribute to vacated areas – and thus cause more movements and interactions that spread the disease. Vaccination always seems to have the best result.”

Programs using vaccine-laced bait to inoculate wild animals have had remarkable success. They have eliminated rabies in coyotes in Texas, raccoon and fox rabies in Ontario and red fox rabies throughout vast swaths of Western and Central Europe.

In northern Maine, USDA Wildlife Services and DIFW work together on a program that air-drops rabies vaccine baits as part of the National Rabies Management Program.

The agencies have dismissed baits as a solution for the Bath area, saying that “it is ineffective and costly to spot treat” at the local level, but local vaccine efforts have successfully addressed rabies outbreaks. Anne Arundel County, Maryland; Long Island, New York, and towns surrounding Massachusetts’ Cape Cod Canal have used hand distribution, bait stations, car tosses and air drops to deploy the baits. Bath and its advisers should consider a serious exploration of a vaccine solution.

The city’s $26,000 investment in a trapping plan would be better spent on vaccine baits and/or an aggressive public outreach program and 24-7 reporting hotline. These could help citizens recognize and report animals in the active stage of rabies, reduce potential exposures, aid in the quick and humane dispatch of rabid animals and help prevent the disease from spreading further.

The proposed trapping program will not only waste Bath’s financial resources but also give community members a false sense of assurance that the threat of rabies is being addressed and they are being protected when they are not.


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