From left, Michelle Walsh, a state veterinarian, Rachel Keefe, a state epidemiologist, and Scott Lindsay, a regional biologist, explain how residents can protect themselves against rabid animals at rabies forum held in Bath earlier this year. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

BATH — Up until Aug. 6, when a Woolwich man reported being attacked and bitten by two foxes in his backyard, such cases had seemingly left the limelight after a flurry of such incidents in late 2019 and early 2020.

James Collins, 79, was working in his yard with a motorized trimmer when he was knocked to the ground by young foxes. Collins said he didn’t think the foxes looked rabid because of their coordinated movements, the Times Record reported Aug. 7. He received several bites to his arms and legs and struck both animals until they ran away.

“One fox grabbed my muck boots and it tried to drag me away,” Collins said. “I was lying on the ground trying to keep the weed wacker between me and the fox.”

He has received medical treatment for rabies.

A week later, on Aug. 13, a fox attacked a man at his Brunswick home and then attacked an animal control officer before it was killed by police.

Scott Lindsay, a regional wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was unaware Monday morning of the attack. But isolated incidents “wouldn’t be anything that would really deviate much from the norm,” Lindsay said. “We’re looking for patterns that deviate from normal levels of rabies.”

On the other hand, many cases in a small geographic area would tend to be more curious, he said. That’s what occurred several months ago, when Sagadahoc County saw a spate in grey fox rabies cases. Among those were former Bath Fire Chief Norman Kenney, who was attacked both in September 2019 and January 2020, and former City Clerk Mary Howe, who suffered injuries while evading a fox in her Brunswick yard.

In 2019, Bath had seven case of rabies and Bowdoinham two, mostly later in the year. In the first four months of 2020, Bath had one, Phippsburg two and West Bath six, and nothing since, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

“This is fairly typical of what we see with rabies and its prevalence in the environment,” Lindsay said in an interview earlier this month. “It is a virus which does what viruses do; they can propagate themselves, they can evolve and they will try to avoid extinction.”

An unusually large number of cases can crop up in an area and then fade out, he said. That can be through raising awareness about rabid animals in the area and through a reduction in their numbers, either through being trapped and killed or simply dying from the rabies virus.

“An animal that has progressed to the point of rabies where you’re going to see it behave as a rabid animal, normally only has several weeks of life left,” Lindsay said, which “will result in a localized reduction of species over time.”

A decreased number of animals results in a decreased opportunity for a rabid animal to expose another, he noted.

According to the CDC, Maine as a whole had 76 documented rabies cases in 2018 across a variety of species and 89 in 2019. There have been 46 so far this year. Those numbers are within a typical range, Lindsay said.

“We know we have it; it’s prevalent,” he noted. “But what we saw last year in Bath was definitely a deviation from that and I think that’s what we’ll see on occasion; you’ll just have these waves of rabies that will come through a population and that one did persist later than normal, even into the winter and … early spring.”

“I’m very glad to see that things have settled down to our normal background levels,” Lindsay said, adding there’s no way to predict when a resurgence could occur.

He noted Bath has assembled an ad-hoc Rabies Response Committee to “keep this on the forefront, just so that it doesn’t go away. When all the publicity goes away, you don’t know want everyone to settle into not thinking that there’s ever going to be a problem again.”

Jake Becwar, who was attacked by a fox outside his Phippsburg home in February, was among those people wrapped up in the fox frenzy publicity. He had gone to scrape ice off his windshield around 5 a.m. one day when he turned to encounter the fox, swung at it with his ice scraper and fell to the ground, from which he proceeded to kick the animal and strike it with the scraper, managing to avoid being bitten.

He looked over his shoulder a little more than before for the next few weeks and “sometimes I’ll still get a little nervous like when I walk the dog and I hear something in the woods,” but otherwise doesn’t worry too much about another attack.

Still, that ice scraper has remained in his truck all summer.

“I joke with people, I’m ready for round two,” Becwar said. “I’m not going to fall this time.”

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