Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry planes will drop up to 30,000 rabies vaccine baits over the Kingston and Cornwall areas next month, in hopes that raccoons, foxes, and skunks eat them to prevent the spread of the disease.
The goal is "eventually to eliminate rabies from the landscape" by building up enough immunized animals, according to MNR rabies operations supervisor Kevin Middel.
"We have a proactive baiting campaign that we do annually along our borders with the U.S.," said Middel. "There are a number of cases every year on the other side of the border, and we will distribute baits in close proximity to those, or as close as possible to those cases, and in areas where there's potential for crossing. So around the Kingston/Ivy Lea area, around Wolfe Island, and in the Cornwall/Akwesasne area."
The bait drop is part of a wider rabies control program that's largely focused around the Golden Horseshoe area of southern Ontario, where aircraft will drop up to 1.4 million vaccines to control a recent outbreak there.
There have been 331 reported cases of raccoon rabies in that region dating back to December 2015. Prior to that, the disease hadn't been seen in Ontario since 2005, according to Middel.
Infected raccoon from the U.S.
"We suspect that it was an animal that was moved from an infected region in the United States," he said. "Genetic analysis of the rabies virus ties it most closely to an area in eastern New York, and we believe that an infected animal was most likely brought into the Hamilton area."
The vaccine baits are coated with a flavoured wax substance that's attractive to wildlife, and animals are vaccinated when they consume them.
"I'm very happy that they have decided to do this again," said Leah Birmingham, assistant director of the Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre in Napanee, west of Kingston.
The centre treats wild animals from Oshawa through the Highway 401 corridor all the way up to Ottawa, which Birmingham calls a "high-risk zone" because of its proximity to the border with New York state, where rabies is an ongoing problem.
But staff there haven't seen an animal with rabies in 15 years, and Birmingham credits the air drop program.
"I think the effectiveness is the fact that we didn't see rabies in Ontario for such a long time when they were putting these baits out," she said.
Still, the province is advising people stay away from animals behaving strangely in high-risk areas, and report them to a local health unit or animal rehab centre. Owners should also keep their pets' vaccinations up to date.
Even though rabies was absent from Ontario for a long time, Birmingham believes people should always beware of the disease in animals for their own safety.
"Let's face it, the reason why they're doing this isn't to protect raccoons from rabies — it's to protect humans, ultimately, because we can also be infected by rabies," she said.
"And when you are infected, if left untreated, you die."