Strolling in Central Park with Esau yesterday morning, I was surprised to encounter dramatic new “Rabies Advisory” signs on lamp posts along the western edge of the park.
The new signs scream “Rabies” in multiple languages (La Rage! Rabbia! Tollwut!) and feature a realistic line drawing of a hulking raccoon that could probably hold its own as a National Football League center.
Last winter, when it had become clear that Manhattan was in the midst of a raccoon rabies epidemic, bright green signs appeared on park lamp posts, urging visitors to “Leave Wildlife Alone.”
Note the cute little cartoon-like drawing of a raccoon head and the small lettering for the words “rabies advisory.”
The new signs are striking, easy to read and, well, kind of scary. But why scare us now? The epidemic appears to be mostly over, thanks to USDA’s humane and labor-intensive program to individually trap, vaccinate and release Manhattan’s healthy raccoons. Over 130 already-infected raccoons have died off since summer 2009, while the remaining, much-decreased, vaccinated population should serve as a barrier that prevents the disease from reaching epidemic proportions.
After a monthly high of 38 reported rabies cases in March 2010, the numbers began to decline. June and July saw three rabies cases each, and August became Manhattan’s first rabies-free month since November 2009.
So I repeat, why the scary new signs? Well, it ain’t over till it’s over and with rabies these days, it may never be completely over. In early September, a single rabid raccoon was found in Central Park in the West 70s, reminding us just how difficult it is to eradicate a disease with a long incubation period. And to maintain effectiveness, we’ll probably need an annual vaccination program to ensure that new babies are trapped and immunized.
But even if we were to succeed in immunizing the entire resident raccoon population, raccoon rabies is now endemic across the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Raccoons and other wild animals, including skunks and coyotes, regularly find their way from the mainland to Manhattan, as juveniles seek new territory. They cross the railroad bridge from the Bronx or swim a narrow channel. If in their travels, they have been in contact with a rabid animal, they will again bring rabies to our island paradise.
So heed the scary signs, and leave wildlife alone. Enjoy the raccoons, but don’t feed them or try to lure them closer so you can get a better photo.
And while we’re at it, it’s probably better not to feed any of our urban wildlife, except maybe small migrating songbirds.
Grazing geese take over the outfield in Morningside Park
Feeding by humans encourages animals to overpopulate, which makes us consider them pests that need to be eradicated, as in this summer’s killing of geese in Prospect Park. Unnaturally dense populations allow disease to flourish and spread. So if you have a soft spot for geese, raccoons, pigeons, squirrels and other urban wildlife, do the animals a favor and stop feeding them.
Red-eared sliders, expecting crumbs, mass beneath the Turtle Pond overlook
If you don’t have a soft spot for animals, count yourself lucky that we don’t yet have a need for these signs in Manhattan:
Sign in Vancouver, Canada proclaims: Warning! Coyotes in the Area
Then again, coyotes love goose eggs, so maybe you goose-haters want to roll out the coyote welcome mat. After all, as the sign says, coyotes are “smart, fast, and will take what they can get.”
Welcome or not, coyotes will be back in Manhattan. If not this winter, then next. They may be here already, slipping through the old growth of Inwood Park and the tangles of Highbridge.
Esau contemplates ducks as a possible food source.