SANTA FE – Wildlife rescue organizations aren’t able to do quite as much rescuing any more.
Because of fear of the spread of a neighboring strain of rabies, state Game and Fish ordered in June that no raccoons or foxes be released back into the wild, and it is euthanizing any of those nuisance animals that it captures. Other critters, such as skunks, coyotes, bats and sometimes bobcats, also fall under this umbrella.
“We usually take in a lot of raccoons and skunks. We had quite a few before the memo came out,” said Katherine Eagleson, executive director of The Wildlife Center in Española. She said this is the first time she knows of that the state Game and Fish Department has banned release of certain animals back into the wild.
“They’re our permitting agency, so we’ll do what they want us to do,” she added.
Kerry Mower, wildlife health specialist with Game and Fish, said the ban is connected to fears over Arizona fox rabies spreading farther from where it already exists in the southwest quadrant of New Mexico.
“We’ve been dealing with this in New Mexico since about 2006, mostly in Sierra and Grant counties,” he said. “The health officials don’t want to see it come over the Black Mountains and slide over to TorC, down by the river. The Rio Grande is a nice wildlife corridor.”
Once along the Rio Grande, animals can move easily up and down the state, bringing with them any diseases they might be carrying, he noted.
“At the beginning of the summer, we had a couple of confirmed rabies tests, so that always make us really quite jittery,” Mower added. One, a raccoon in Raton, turned out to be a false positive – in other words, it didn’t have rabies after all, he said. The other, a fox in Magdalena, did have the Arizona fox strain of rabies.
A deadly disease, rabies is often transmitted to humans by exposure to saliva from their own dogs or cats, who may have been infected by a fight with a wild animal. “The best thing to protect you and your family is to make sure your dogs and cats are up to date” on their rabies vaccinations, said Paul Ettestad, public health veterinarian with the state Department of Health.
Several years ago in Silver City, a dog became rabid after biting a fox, Ettestad said, and about 10 people who were exposed to the dog were treated to prevent the disease. Such treatment, which must be done within 10 days of infection, involves injections of both immunoglobulin and vaccine.
But, since wildlife behave abnormally and aggressively when they get rabies, they sometimes can directly affect humans. Mower described a couple of such instances, both in Arizona. In one, a rabid bobcat went into a bar and started attacking people there, while in the other a group of hikers was attacked by a bobcat from behind.
Arizona, unlike New Mexico, has a strain of bobcat rabies.
And while these rabies strains are named after certain animals, that doesn’t mean others might not get infected by such a strain, Mower explained. It simply means those are the animals that serve as the reservoir for the disease, spreading it primarily among themselves.
The problem with wildlife rescue work is that the animals rescued and rehabilitated often get released in areas far from where they may have originated. And they might be carrying a disease – depending on the disease, animals can be carrying an infection for days before they get noticeably sick – and spread it to an area that the disease had not yet reached.
Game and Fish, put in charge under law of animals deemed “fur-bearers,” is responsible for trapping raccoons and foxes when they get calls about the animals pestering humans. Before this summer, it would then release them a considerable distance away. Now, it will euthanize them, Mower said.
Tied into that decision is the fact that populations of these animals appear to be “really, really high” now, he added. That means anywhere an animal is released probably will be within another individual’s territory, leading to fights and, along with potential injury and death, a higher probability that a disease could be transmitted through the wounds, he said.
“It’s just not a good idea to translocate any animals. Typically, the mortality is 90 percent or more if you translocate them to another territory,” Ettestad said. “And if you drive them just 10 miles down the road, they’ll be back at your home the next night.”
The same concerns about relocation are true of skunks and coyotes, but Game and Fish has no legal authority over them. Landowners who call with complaints are generally referred to private “critter companies” that trap and relocate them.
“Now we ask them (those businesses) to kill it but we can’t legally require it,” Mower said. “A county animal control (officer) will euthanize them, but a private entity will not” necessarily do so.
“Bobcats are their own special category,” he added. “They are not as high risk for rabies, but when they do get it, they are about the most aggressive animals, chasing humans around.”
But if, as often occurs, baby bobcats are taken in to a rescue group after being orphaned, and if they are kept under the care of a veterinarian, Game and Fish will allow them to be released, Mower said.
“There are some places (without other bobcats) where we can put them,” he said.
“We do have three or four (bobcat) babies that we’re going to release this fall,” Eagleson said. “We know their mother was killed, and there’s been no strange behavior or indication of illness involved.”