Spend enough time outdoors in Maine and sooner or later you’ll run into wildlife. It’s an exhilarating experience but it can turn ugly if the critter in question turns out to be rabid.
That was the case in dozens of instances last year when 35 animals tested positive for rabies after coming in contact with a person, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than one-third of those — 12 — were found in raccoons.
Over the past 10 years, Maine CDC reported that raccoons were the most common source of rabies-to-human exposure.
“Rabies can infect any animal that has hair,” said Tegwin Taylor, wildlife health biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “In Maine, rabies is endemic in raccoons, so although rabies can infect a variety of wildlife and domestic mammals, raccoons are the most common source for rabies in our area.”
Sometimes, these rabid raccoon encounters happen in the comfort of one’s own home.
Last week a Bowdoinham woman was attacked inside her residence after a rabid raccoon came into her sun room through a pet door. She was bitten on the leg and is currently undergoing treatment after the animal tested positive for rabies.
Animal control officers believe the raccoon was not alone and are on the lookout for two other potentially rabid raccoons in the area.
In a more famous rabid raccoon case in Maine, a woman jogger in Hope gained international fame after drowning an attacking animal in a puddle in 2016.
Two years later another rabid raccoon was dispatched in Hope by a resident — this time using a dull bread knife — after the animal attacked his dog.
The last time the state counted raccoons here was in 1996. It was estimated that there were more than 120,000 of the animals from Kittery to Fort Kent.
Racoons are extremely adaptable and are perfectly comfortable living in urban areas feasting food waste thrown out by people. Often referred to as “trash pandas,” the critters have been known to raid garbage cans and business dumpsters in search of a meal.
“We do tend to detect rabies in those species that are more tolerant of, or living around, people,” Taylor said. “Raccoons are quite adapted to humans so we tend to notice their presence when or if they are behaving strangely.”
A rabid raccoon, or other wild animal, will often be aggressive, though some can be subdued, said Taylor.
“In general, if something seems ‘off’ or odd about an animal, try to observe it from a distance and then try contact help if needed,” she said.
Animals get and spread rabies through bites and scratches and the saliva from an infected animal comes in contact with mucus membranes like the eyes or open wounds, even tiny ones.
Smaller mammals tend to group together and come into contact with other similar sized animals, Taylor said. That allows them to spread the disease back and forth.
“While larger animals occasionally get infected with rabies, this is not as common,” she said. “Although a moose could technically get bitten and infected with rabies, there are also fewer opportunities for that to happen.”