LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Every year, Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Lancaster County takes in orphaned baby animals, raises them to the point they can fend for themselves, then releases them (or perhaps we should say re-releases them) into the wild. They’re off to a good start, especially because they got their shots.
“We give rabies vaccinations, distemper vaccinations, we also deworm the animals,” Tracie Young, rehabber for Raven Ridge said. And she doesn’t mince words about why that rabies shot is so important.
“You contract rabies, you’re going to die.”
Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system. It’s transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal, often by bites or scratches. Not only does it cause near-certain death, but horrible death. Physician Lewis Thomas, in his book The Lives of a Cell, said, “I have seen agony in death only once, in a patient with rabies: he remained acutely aware of every stage in the process of his own disintegration over a twenty-four hour period, right up to his final moment.”
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September 28 is World Rabies Day, when health officials around the world try to raise awareness of this disease, which kills over 50,000 people and millions of animals every year.
The reason that date was chosen? It’s the anniversary of the death of the famous French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who developed the first successful rabies vaccine in the 1800s.
Having vaccines for rabies changed everything. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1960 the majority of reported rabies cases in the United States were domestic animals, particularly dogs. Now 90% of rabies cases come from wildlife-which puts places like Raven Ridge on the front lines of fighting this disease. It’s one of only thirteen rescues licensed in Pennsylvania to handle rabies vector species.
“Which are your bats, your skunks, foxes, groundhogs, coyotes, and raccoons,” Young said. (Those are the species of main concern, but in fact, just about any warm-blooded mammal can contract and spread the disease.)
“We are all prevaccinated, and able to work with these animals, We also have standards we need to follow, protocols that we need to follow, and special caging.”
“We protect the public, we protect your families, we protect your pets. As far as we are a place where you can bring a rabies vector species if you find one.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about rabid animals. For starters, they’re not always foaming at the mouth.
“The animal can be friendly, the animal can be aggressive, or the animal can just be itself,” Young said.
But don’t assume an animal that’s normally around at night is rabid just because it’s out by day.
“Especially in the springtime, raccoons, skunks, foxes, they’re raising babies,” Young said. “And they’re hungry, and they’re busy.”
Some people think baby animals can’t get rabies.
“If mom has rabies, and mom is grooming the animal, cleaning them, licking their face, that’s how it’s transmitted to the babies.”
The rescue often serves as a bridge between the public, and some extensive state and federal regulations. If you call the rescue, they can explain the safest ways to capture the animal. (If you can send them video or pictures, they may be able to tell if you even need to bring the animal in at all.)
“When somebody brings us a rabies vector species, there’s special paperwork to fill out. We send home information about the rabies virus, because we understand with the public. When they capture an animal, it’s all adrenalin, they’re all excited, they get us the animal, but we want to make sure they are safe and there is no exposure,” Young said.
Much of the rabies information centers on the concept of exposure-which in the case of rabies, means any contact with the animal’s saliva.
“If there are exposures, someone gets bit, there are scratches, saliva, we need to have the animal tested to see if it does have rabies,” Young said.
“If it does, that’s when the Department of Health and the Game Commission get involved. And possibly you would need post-exposure rabies shots.”
“Unfortunately, the only test to see if the animal has rabies is to euthanize, and test the brain tissue.”
A huge worry-people who try to take care of animals themselves.
“We understand that the babies are cute,” Young said. “But it’s so important to handle these animals properly so that we can rehabilitate them. Don’t hold on to the raccoon for a week, and feeding it, and letting everybody play with it, and your dogs are playing with it because that’s considered an exposure. And we are required by law, for your protection and the protection of your family, to have this raccoon tested.”
Young believes their information packet has prevented some tragedies. “We’ve had people come back and say ‘you know, I read the paperwork that you sent home, and I think there might be an exposure.'”