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Rabies: Wildlife removal workers treating Hamilton as a dangerous area

Wildlife removal companies approaching raccoons and skunks in Hamilton with 'extra caution.'

Wildlife removal companies approaching raccoons and skunks in Hamilton with 'extra caution'

Dan Adamson (left) and Mark Coulton work with City Wildlife Control. They say since the rabies outbreak in December, they have a much more cautious approach to the working jobs in Hamilton. (Chris Seto/CBC)

Dan Adamson says he usually gets excited when called to remove a raccoon from inside a house. But when it turns out that house is located in Hamilton, he said he gets a "sickly feeling" inside. 

With Hamilton at the epicentre of a raccoon rabies outbreak, there's a lot more added risk to the job, the wildlife technician said. 

"We have to be extra cautious in regards to how we handle the situation as compared to before," he said. Dealing with baby raccoons and not knowing if the mother has been infected with rabies or not, "you really get kind of scared, where as before, we wouldn't."

Adamson is the owner of City Wildlife Control and has been operating the company for the past six years. Several weeks ago, he joined other wildlife removal agencies at an information session in Stoney Creek to hear about how the outbreak is being tackled by the province. 

Susan Harding-Cruz is manager of vector borne disease at public health. She said the information session was held by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and public health also attended. Another session for those who couldn't make it will be held within the next two weeks, she said.

Steer clear of wild animals

Since the first case of raccoon rabies was discovered in Hamilton in December, the number of infected raccoons and skunks has risen to 72, in the city alone. The total count of raccoon rabies cases throughout the province is 77.

On Monday, public health sent out a news release advising residents to keep their distance from all wild animals, including unknown cats and dogs.

Every skunk and raccoon, in my eyes, has rabies.- Mark Coulton, wildlife technician with City Wildlife Control

If you become infected with rabies and don't get the shots in time, the disease is almost always fatal, Harding-Cruz said. 

Now with the warm weather finally arriving, raccoons and skunks are a lot more mobile. A person can become infected with rabies if the bodily fluid of a rabid animal (saliva or nervous system tissues) enters their bloodstream. If that happens, they need to get treatment before the infection can travel up to their brain.

Harding-Cruz said depending on the point of entry into the body, the virus may spread to the brain over a period of three weeks or three months. There is no set time frame. There have even been documented cases of people showing symptoms seven years after the initial infection, she said.

'It's completely different in Hamilton, now'

Mark Coulton works with Adamson and has personal experience with the treatment required to prevent rabies after being bit by a raccoon last fall. He said while working, he was reaching out towards a raccoon and was bit through the kevlar gloves he was wearing.

That same day he received 14 large needles containing a thick serum, "like maple syrup," he said. On top of that, he received a rabies vaccination, injected over a span of three days.

To us, Hamilton is a very dangerous zone.- Paul Stevens, owner of All Wildlife Removal Inc.

"It's completely different in Hamilton, now," he said, adding he approaches every situation much more cautiously in the city.

"Every skunk and raccoon, in my eyes, has rabies," he said, adding he'll be thinking this way until the city goes a year without any new cases.

Paul Stevens is the owner of All Wildlife Removal Inc. He said he's spending around $10,000 to have his 20 employees vaccinated for rabies, just in case. The business handles calls for wildlife removal throughout southern Ontario and approaches every job with the same degree of caution.

But with cases of rabies on the rise in Hamilton, he said everything has changed. The animals are acting completely irrational, he said. 

"It's kind of like the difference between a cop going into an insane asylum and a cop going into a pre-school," he said. "In the pre-school everyone will be respectful and fearful of the cop, but you go into a mental asylum and you don't know what you're dealing with.

"To us, Hamilton is a very dangerous zone," he said, adding he's even thought about minimizing the amount of work the business does in the city just because of how much caution you have to put into those jobs.

Who to contact

While raccoon rabies is making waves this year, Harding-Cruz said it's often under reported that there are cases of bats with rabies in Hamilton every year. There haven't been any cases this year, yet, but there were three last year, she said.

She said the best precaution against contracting rabies is to avoid any interaction with wild animals. 

If residents come across a dead or sick animal including raccoons, skunks or bats, she said they should contact Hamilton Animal Services at 905-546-2489.

If anyone is bitten by a wild animal, or there is direct mucous membrane contact with the animal's saliva, wash the wound with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately.

Hamilton Public Health tips to prevent rabies

  • Always keep a safe distance from wild animals. Rabies can make animals aggressive or it can make them appear sick, scared, or friendly.

  • Avoid contact with live or dead animals including raccoons, skunks, other land animals and bats, and unknown dogs and cats.

  • Call Hamilton Animal Services at 905-546-2489 if you see a dead, sick or strangely acting raccoon, skunk or other wild animal.

  • Do not feed, help, or relocate any wildlife or keep them as pets.

  • If anyone is bitten by a wild animal, or there is direct mucous membrane contact with the animal's saliva, wash the wound with soap and water, seek medical attention immediately or call Public Health Services at 905-546-2489.

  • Vaccinate your pets against rabies, and keep rabies vaccinations current for dogs and cats to protect them, and prevent any spread to people.

  • Contact your vet or the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) at 1-877-424-1300 if your pet is in contact with a wild animal.

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