Rabies is a zoonotic disease caused by a deadly virus that attacks the central nervous system of mammals. The disease is usually transmitted by a bite from an infected animal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), notable signs of rabies in wildlife include abnormal behavior, excessive salivation, and aggression, with death occurring within days of animals exhibiting such symptoms. Most often, rabies affects raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats, which can then transmit the disease to other wildlife, companion animals, and livestock.
In the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, widespread rabies vaccination campaigns reduced the prevalence of the disease in domestic animals. During 2015, the CDC received 5,508 reports of rabies in animals within the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Infected wildlife accounted for 92.4 percent of those cases, while domestic animals accounted for only 7.6 percent.
During the 1970s, a strain of rabies associated with raccoons spread across the eastern United States, with some states reporting more than 500 cases a year. In the past, rabies control efforts relied on shooting and trapping to reduce wildlife populations in an attempt to prevent disease spread. Such labor-intensive methods were not effective due to costs, compensatory reproduction in the target populations, impacts to nontarget species, and limited public support.
To humanely control and prevent the spread of rabies, the National Rabies Management Program was established through the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the mid-1990s. Consequently, APHIS’s Wildlife Services program has worked with local, state, tribal, and federal governments to distribute oral rabies vaccination (ORV) baits in target areas by ground and air. The vaccine is inside a plastic packet contained within a fishmeal bait, exposing animals to the vaccine as they consume the bait. According to APHIS, “The raccoon’s immune system is then tricked into thinking it has been exposed to the rabies virus and makes antibodies to fight the disease. The blueprint on how to make these antibodies is stored in the raccoon’s immune system allowing the animal’s body to respond quickly should it be exposed to a rabid animal.” The vaccine does not cause rabies, and is safe for more than 60 species of animals, including cats and dogs.
In 2018, Wildlife Services distributed nearly 5 million fishmeal baits in eastern states including Georgia, Maine, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. A million more will be distributed in 2019 by Texas along its border with Mexico. Over the past three decades, the ORV program has saved countless lives of people and animals and made significant strides in controlling rabies, including the elimination of canine rabies, the near-elimination of gray fox rabies in Texas, and halting the spread of raccoon rabies from the eastern United States into new areas. AWI has long advocated for this humane solution for controlling rabies in wildlife. Although we remain highly critical of Wildlife Services’ draconian use of lethal and inhumane methods to control wildlife in countless other circumstances, we commend the program in this instance for using technology and compassion to control rabies in wildlife.