Posted tagged ‘Central Park raccoon rabies’

Whatever Happened to the Rabid Raccoons of Central Park?

August 23, 2011

Remember NYC’s great raccoon rabies outbreak of 2010?

Is it safe out there?

It began in the summer of 2009 with two rabid raccoons in northern Manhattan.

Riverside Park Raccoons

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.

Rabies Advisory signs appeared in the parks.

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.

Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends

March 18, 2010

Sparrows swarm white bread sandwich

I’m currently rethinking the whole concept of feeding wild animals. Even birds.

In many species, feeding – whether intentional at the bird feeder, or unintentional at the trash bag –  contributes to unnaturally large populations. Unnaturally large populations lead to animals being viewed as pests, which in turn leads us to kill the animals in order to manage their populations. Maybe better to let the populations stay small and hungry, no?

Pretty pigeon

Pigeons are regular visitors to the Riverside Park bird feeders where they eat the seeds that fall beneath the songbird feeder. I like pigeons. But I recently watched a poisoned pigeon flopping about helplessly in the throes of a long, painful death. So by a lousy chain reaction, when I feed the pretty little songbird guys, I may also be contributing to a pigeon boom and so sending pigeons to be poisoned. I think I’d rather not.

Then there’s the disease angle. The scale of the current Manhattan rabies outbreak (more than 80 rabid raccoons from December 2009 until March 12, 2010) is surely tied to an unnaturally dense raccoon population in urban parks, especially Central Park.

Blurry iPhone photo of three raccoons on Riverside Park retaining wall - I know, I know, I really must get a real camera...

And the unnatural density is probably created by the extraordinary availability of food, much of it human-generated, easily accessible garbage.

Rabies is a well-studied disease. We know it’s lethal, highly contagious and zoonotic, meaning it can move from animals to people. Zoonotic diseases are on the rise, and include emerging infectious diseases like West Nile virus.  So if feeding by humans encourages unnaturally dense, disease-susceptible animal populations among (unnaturally) dense urban human populations, maybe it’s not such a good idea.

But what actually are the benefits and problems caused by feeding birds and squirrels? Clearly, many humans receive a powerful emotional, even spiritual, uplift from the activity.

I recently spent a lovely quarter of an hour in Riverside Park with this gentleman.

“They don’t allow no pets where I live,” he says. “So I come here and visit my friends.”

Two or three times a week, more often if he has received “donations,” he buys peanuts and feeds the squirrels along the upper path inside the park.

“Hello. Hello,” he calls, waving as if to an acquaintance.

Sure enough, the squirrels stop what they’re doing to listen up.

And one by one, they move in to get their peanuts.

“They all know me,” the man says.It seems to be true.

We talk about the mange that ravaged Riverside’s squirrels about a year and a half ago.

“I was afraid they was all going to die off. Lot of them did die. But they came back. Yes, they came back.”They certainly did.

Sparrows approach, looking for hand-outs and a crow draws near the edge of the path

Maybe it’s the same crow I saw a few days earlier. It wasn’t freeloading then, but working hard for a morsel of acorn. It held the nut in its beak and slammed it repeatedly against the stone brick on which it was standing. Eventually the acorn broke open and the crow ate. Seemed to me to be a tremendous amount of effort for very small gain, but hey, a lot of people think lobster’s worth the effort.

The man and I part ways, and I wonder: does the pleasure we derive from feeding the animals outweigh the potential harm? How real are the benefits to the individual animal and to the general population? And how real is the potential for harm? Really, I’m just asking.

Across the country, human conflict with wild animals is on the rise. Coyotes, bears and even mountain lions are making their homes in cities and suburbs, causing alarm to some and yielding inspiration to others. Wildlife managers agree that the few individual animals that become aggressive are usually those that have become habituated to people through the presence of food.

I’m not saying bird-feeding New Yorkers need to start worrying about chipping sparrow attacks or being stalked by goldfinches. But pigeon poisonings, disease outbreaks and coyote visitations are prompting me to reassess some of my assumptions about our relationship to wildlife, including the consequences of providing open buffets.

I’d like to gather both opinions and research. So, dear reader, what do you think? Know of any interesting articles? Had an enlightening experience with feeding the animals? Feel free to share.

Meanwhile, Esau reflects on the wonders of life near a puddle left after the storm.


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