A mixture of fish oil and fish meal may not seem that appetizing, but raccoons consider it a great snack.
“Raccoons are not very picky eaters,” said Jordona Kirby, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rabies field coordinator. “If they smell that, they will come right to it.”
Kirby is heading up an effort, based out of Dalton Municipal Airport, to drop some 1.7 million doses of rabies vaccine from planes over north Georgia and parts of Alabama and Tennessee.
“We started last Friday, and we hope to wrap up this Friday. We’ve had beautiful weather, though the fog in the morning has delayed us a little,” she said. “We’ve got five aircraft and have been doing 10 flights per day.”
The crew of 35 started in New York several months ago and has been working its way down the Eastern coast.
“We cover 13 states in the eastern United States as well as Texas,” she said.
The vaccine is in a white packet that looks pretty much like a packet of ketchup or mustard from a restaurant, covered with the mix of fish oil and fish meal. Raccoons chow down on the packet and swallow the vaccine.
“We are primarily targeting raccoons, though in Texas, we are also targeting coyotes. But any wild animal that eats the vaccine will be vaccinated. One packet should be enough to vaccinate,” she said.
The USDA began the program in the mid-1990s and has based the southern end of the project in Dalton since 2007. Its goal is to stop the spread of rabies into other parts of the country.
“In the eastern United States, raccoons account for the majority of documented cases of rabies in wild animals,” Kirby said.
But she added that any mammal can get rabies.
“The primary vectors are raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes, as well as bats. But we have seen rabid otters and beavers. It’s very rare in possums. There’s some speculation that’s because of their body temperature and the virus not being able to persist in their bodes very long,” she said. “As for smaller mammals, such as squirrels and chipmunks, it’s possible but uncommon. A large reason for that is that they are such small animals, and if they are exposed by a larger animal they probably aren’t going to survive being attacked.”
Kirby said an animal can have rabies and be able to spread it even before it starts to show symptoms.
“We always tell people enjoy wildlife from afar. Even if an animal seems to be behaving normally, that doesn’t mean it isn’t sick,” she said.
Kirby said the USDA also spreads the vaccine in rural and suburban areas by truck.
“It is possible that a domestic animal — a dog or a cat or even a livestock animal — could come into contact with the bait. But if a dog or a cat does eat this it is safe. The bait is very rich, and it could cause an upset stomach in a dog if it consumes many of them, but it will not cause any long-term harm,” she said.
Kirby says that if you see one of the vaccine packets the best thing to do is to leave it alone so a wild animal will have a chance to eat it.
But if you don’t want your cat or dog to possibly eat it, take a paper towel and move it to an area where pets can’t get it, then wash your hands.
“That’s just to get the bait and the smell off your hands, it’s unlikely you could be exposed to vaccine itself,” she said.