By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
When I was growing up, the telltale sign that we were in big trouble with my mother was her forehead. If her forehead went from relaxed to what we called “slick,” it was time to bail if at all possible.
Uh-oh, slick forehead. “Get that thing out of here right now. It might have rabies!”
Of course, I was already headed out the door because of the slick forehead, but I learned I was supposed to steer clear of all bats and dogs foaming at the mouth.
Because of an extensive effort to vaccinate for rabies in the pet population, that topic doesn’t come up often these days.
That may be about the change after cases of rabies in wildlife were confirmed as two raccoons recently tested positive in Foley. More infections were confirmed in north Alabama in three raccoons, a dog, a fox and a bat in Jackson County near Huntsville.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has started bait drops via helicopter and light airplanes with vaccination packets in north Alabama to try to stop the spread of rabies in the wildlife populations.
Dana Johnson of the USDA said the traditional barriers of the Alabama and Coosa rivers that kept the rabies virus in the southern part of the state have been breached.
Because rabies has been almost eliminated in the domestic pet population, Johnson said Alabama residents don’t really consider the threat of the virus, which kills thousands in other countries.
“Rabies is a big killer of humans in other countries,” Johnson said. “The reason we don’t have that problem in the Unites States is because our infrastructure is so much better.
“It’s almost 100 percent fatal, but it’s almost 100 percent preventable. The main way you can get that virus is through the animal’s saliva or brain tissue. About 95 percent of rabies cases are caused by an animal bite or scratch, where the animal is salivating and licking its paws.”
Johnson said while incidents of rabies in pet animals has decreased, the virus has become more prevalent in wild animals.
That is one of the reasons that he wholeheartedly endorsed the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s new guidelines for wildlife
One incident highlights the reason he believes that none of the rabies vector species (raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, bats) should be handled by anyone other than a licensed rehabilitator with a rabies vector permit.
“Some kit coons had been picked up out of someone’s attic in Baldwin County and been given to people to raise, which is illegal in Alabama,” Johnson said. “One of those kit coons made it to Walker County. It started acting abnormally, and they sent it to be tested. It came back positive, and 24 people had to get exposure shots that cost between $1,600 and $2,500.”
The problem, according to Johnson, is that rabies vector animals can carry the disease and not develop symptoms.
“Animals can carry the virus in their bodies for years,” he said. “Once it starts getting into their brain, the animals will show symptoms. That’s the thing with people wanting pet raccoons. They (health officials) are not going to give you pre-exposure shots, but that virus could be in that animal’s body. Out of the middle of nowhere, the virus migrates to the brain and the animal starts shedding virus. That’s the issue right there of having that animal. We have trapped raccoons that looked perfectly normal that came back positive. There is a period of time when that animal is shedding virus but is acting perfectly normal.
“That’s why this issue was raised about the rehabilitators.”
Last year, WFF officials changed the guidelines for wildlife rehabilitators that restricted the permits to those who meet certain criteria. The number of rehabilitators permitted to handle the rabies vector species was limited to one per district (5) in the state.
Marianne Hudson, Rehabilitator Coordinator for the WFF’s Wildlife Section, said the rehabilitator program guidelines are in the best interest of the general public and the wildlife.
“We want our wildlife rehabilitators to be aware of the needs of wildlife, but also the fact they can transmit diseases to humans and domestic animals,” Hudson said. “A quality wildlife rehabilitator is well-versed in the behavior of a healthy animal. Therefore, they are able to detect disease and any unusual behavior of any animal under their care.”
Hudson said the rehabbers must comply with the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association guidelines that ensure the humane treatment and proper care for animals, which include minimum caging requirements and standards, as well as general standards for care, sanitation and euthanasia when required.
“Any time you are interacting with a wild animal, people need to realize these animals are not vaccinated against diseases,” she said. “Even if these wild animals have been vaccinated (through the baiting program), it is not always effective on wild species.
“So any time there are wild animals around children, the elderly or anybody with a debilitated immune system, it’s never a good idea.”
Possession of wildlife without a permit is a violation of Alabama law that makes it unlawful to possess wildlife under provisions of regulation 220-2-.26(6).
Kevin Dodd, WFF’s Chief of Enforcement, said the regulation has been in effect for quite some time.
“At one time, we were issuing permits for people to keep wildlife, but we were constantly having to deal with issues of wildlife getting out or people just getting
“We’ve held the line and think it’s the right thing to do. We stand by that decision, and we’re going to maintain that approach. It’s not a good idea to keep wildlife in captivity. It denies them their natural instincts. It’s not fair to the wildlife. And it can be dangerous to humans.”
One incident last year highlights the danger factor. J.R. Dunsmore of Marshall County was attacked by his illegally held “pet” buck. Dunsmore lost the sight in one eye and spend a significant period of time recovering from serious injuries.
Dodd said he realizes some people have good intentions when they pick up a baby squirrel that has fallen out of a nest or pick up a fawn that seems to have been abandoned (which is seldom the case).
“People will find a baby squirrel or fawn on the side of the road, and they think they’re doing a good thing by rescuing it,” he said. “But most people don’t understand that fawn deer are often left alone, that mother squirrels will retrieve the baby squirrels.”
When WFF receives a complaint about wild animals being illegally held in captivity, the Enforcement Officers are required to confiscate the animals. Dodd said most of the time the officers will issue a warning, but that is not always the case.
“Those who are defiant or refuse to cooperate, unfortunately we have to ticket those folks,” he said. “First and foremost in these wildlife situations, public safety is going to be the No. 1 priority. Beyond that, we’re going to protect the wildlife resource.”
WFF Director Chuck Sykes said that although the regulation regarding wildlife and pets predates his term as director, he is in complete agreement.
“People should not have wildlife as pets, plain and simple,” Sykes said. “We see it every year where somebody had a pet deer or a pet raccoon or a pet squirrel that they obtained illegally and suddenly the thing goes berserk.”
As for the stricter guidelines for wildlife rehabilitators, Sykes said there were too many people who were claiming to be rehabbers but, in reality, just wanted to keep a deer, squirrel or raccoon as a pet.
“We had quite a few people who were rehabbing rabies vector species, which we did not think was appropriate,” he said. “For public safety and proper care for the wildlife resources, we wanted to make sure the rehabbers were qualified to handle the rabies vector species. We wanted to make sure they understood the risk and understood the proper ways to rehab.
“A wildlife rehabilitator is not a person who just wants to keep a wild animal as a pet. A wildlife rehabber is doing a job. They evaluate an animal. If it can be rehabbed, it’s released back into the wild very close to the location where it was taken. If it can’t be rehabbed, it’s euthanized.
“Rabies is spreading in wild animals every year. The USDA is fighting it right now. This is a serious issue.”
When it comes to confiscating wild animals after receiving a complaint, Sykes said WFF is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
“If we find someone in violation, we have to do our jobs,” he said. “We’re not the bad guys. We’re not the ones breaking the law. Look at it this way, if we get a report that someone has a pet raccoon and we don’t do anything about it and a kid gets bitten or a dog gets bitten, people want to know why we didn’t do anything.
“It’s a no-win situation for us. We don’t like having to do it, but it’s our job.”
PHOTOS: (USFWS) Several animals in Jackson County have tested positive for rabies, including bats and raccoons. Two raccoons near Foley also tested positive recently. A coyote in Covington County is the latest wild animal to test positive for rabies.