Whatever Happened to the Rabid Raccoons of Central Park?
Remember NYC’s great raccoon rabies outbreak of 2010?
It began in the summer of 2009 with two rabid raccoons in northern Manhattan.
Several months passed and all seemed quiet on the epidemiological front.
And then, boom! ten rabid raccoons were reported in December 2009, all of them in or near Central Park.
Rabies is a highly contagious and virtually always fatal viral disease of the brain and central nervous system. It is transmitted through the saliva of an infected and symptomatic animal, usually by a bite. Descriptions of rabies reach back thousands of years into the ancient world. According A Rabies-Free World, Aristotle wrote that “dogs suffer from the madness. This causes them to become very irritable and all animals they bite become diseased.” Irritable? That seems like an almost pathologically understated description of symptoms that include “slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium.” Let’s just say it’s a bad disease.
By late fall 2009, rabies advisory signs had appeared in Central, Riverside and Morningside Parks, showing a rather cute drawing of a raccoon head with large letters proclaiming: Leave Wildlife Alone.
No one seemed to know how many raccoons lived in the city parks, but for months, the rabies cases kept on coming. (Visit Out Walking the Dog’s archives to read earlier posts on the rabies epidemic. )
Between January 2010 and the middle of September, a staggering 123 cases of rabies were confirmed.
I wondered how the city would ever regain control of such a virulent disease in a park where every inch of space is shared with humans, dogs and other wildlife. Would it treat with oral vaccines? Would it try to eradicate the raccoons? Would the city panic?
And then, suddenly, it was over. And aside from a single case in February 2011, there has been no raccoon rabies reported in Manhattan for almost a year. What happened?
You may remember reading about the extraordinary initiative that was quietly undertaken by the USDA to trap, vaccinate and release every one of Manhattan’s many healthy raccoons. (Surprisingly, marshmallows seem to be the urban raccoon’s bait of choice.) Well, despite skeptics, that labor-intensive program worked, at least in the short term.
The population of Manhattan’s raccoons is smaller and healthier. This hole in Riverside Park’s retaining wall once housed as many as six raccoons; today there are two.
Our narrow island is again rabies-free. Fingers crossed that it stays that way.Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, August, Birds, In the City, Seasons, Summer, Wildlife/Natural History comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.