A recent spate of attacks on humans and pets by foxes in Topsham may be in part due to a new strain of rabies, according to experts.

As of April 18, there have been five such attacks in Topsham this year.

State Veterinarian Michele Walsh theorizes a rabies strain more associated with raccoons has begun infecting gray foxes. Recent tests by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from foxes involved in attacks last year support that theory.

“When a strain of rabies infects a new species, that new species can demonstrate even more severe disease or more rapid signs and dramatic forms,” Walsh said. “This is speculation, but we believe it may affect gray foxes more and cause more aggression than in other species.”

It is not unusual for a virus strain to cross between species, Walsh said.

However, more definitive conclusions are difficult to come by. The body of an attacking animal will only get tested under certain conditions, such as if a person’s skin is broken during the incident, according to Mark Latti of the Maine Department of Inland Wildlife and Fisheries.

Maine’s testing site does not test for specific strains, Walsh said, requiring samples to be sent to Washington, D.C.

At the same time, the federal CDC has been occupied with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and “can’t test every fox,” Walsh said.

The number of attacks by wild animals began increasing in the southern Midcoast in 2018. There were 18 attacks in Bath alone in 2019-20.

While the number of attacks locally has surged, both Latti and Walsh note that the overall number of rabid animals in Maine has been relatively stable.

According to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, there were  76 rabies cases in the state in 2016, 67 in 2017, 76 in 2018, 97 in 2019, 71 in 2020 and 15 so far in 2021. DHHS does not keep records on the number of attacks.

Why foxes are infected more frequently than other animals is a mystery.

Walsh said gray foxes have adapted better than other mammals to suburban environments and will have dens closer to houses.

Topsham Police Chief Marc Hagan noted that at least one area where attacks occurred — around Summer and Winter streets — has a lot of gullies, where foxes may live.

“The foxes live in holes in these gullies and a lot of residents are also around these spots,” Hagan said.

The most recent incident in Topsham occurred April, 18 when a fox attacked two people and was shot by a resident on Middle Street.

Four attacks took place between March 22 and April 4, Hagan said, around Summer and Winter streets.

‘I am paranoid when I come home now.’

The occurrences of rabies have taken their toll on Midcoast residents.

Last year, Norman Kenney, now 89, of Bath killed two foxes in two separate attacks only months apart just outside of his home.

In the first attack, Kenney choked the fox with his foot. In the second, he fought with the fox for nearly 15 minutes on the snowy ground before a neighbor jogging by helped, using Kenney’s bloodied cell phone to call 911 while Kenney choked the fox with his hands.

“I am paranoid when I come home now,” Kenney said, who has lived in the neighborhood all his life. “I tell people across the street from me look in the bushes. I look in those areas. I’m aware now. I’ve never seen rabid foxes here.”

Kim Bashant of Brunswick was not injured after a rabid fox hiding under her porch attacked her in March. The attack ended after the fox was beaten to death with a baseball bat she keeps nearby.

“I have nephews and nieces, a lot of kiddos, elderly. A lot of people here have dogs. It was pretty intense and I worry for them,” Bashant said.

In September 2020, Phippsburg resident Bill Ryan shot a rabid fox outside his home after spotting it under his deck. The fox charged at him as he came outside.

“His jaw was flopping up and down like he got hit by a car,” Ryan said. “I had my boots on so I booted him about 5 feet to the left. He came back, I booted him again, and I had a .22 pistol on me. … I shot him”

Ryan suffered a minor wound below his knee and went to the emergency room to receive a series of “unpleasant” rabies shots.

Local response

While attacks are “alarming,” Walsh said, the state’s response is limited to providing educational materials or, if requested, facilitating meetings in conjunction with local governments to spread awareness.

Bath’s $26,611 program to bait and euthanize foxes failed, The Times Record reported in April, after 24 raccoons and four skunks were trapped, but no foxes.

The program was controversial, with some residents upset because the captured animals were euthanized. A trap and vaccine program used elsewhere was deemed unviable for Bath because of its long and costly duration and because it is intended for areas almost twice the size of the city, according to the newspaper. Bath is about 13 square miles.

There is only one licensed oral rabies vaccine, which treats rabies in raccoons, according to the Times Record.

In Topsham, Hagan said for now they will continue to monitor the situation, and plans to sit in on Bath’s rabies committee next month.

According to both Walsh and Lattie, one of the most important things one can do is vaccinate dogs, cats and ferrets.

“If an unprotected animal gets bitten, the local animal control officer will go through the quarantine with the animal,” Midcoast Humane Medical Director Dr. Alison Pare said.

“Once an animal is showing clinical signs of a rabies infection, there is no treatment at that point,” Pare said. “It’s 100 percent lethal.”

Pare said the virus is transmitted through saliva and affects the brain, explaining aggressive, fearless or “dumb” behavior from infected animals.

“Remove attractants like bird feed and animals will go away. It’s a busier time of year, animals are looking for food and mates. Enjoy nature from a distance,” Latti said.

If you suspect you see a rabid animal go inside and call your local police an animal control officer, Latti said.

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