THORNDIKE — A litter of 2-month-old Labrador puppies was euthanized recently after a deadly encounter with a rabid skunk at their home off Reed Road.

Mike Topich, a 47-year old amateur drummer, also underwent a series of 10 rabies shots after killing the skunk with his bare hands.

He said that nine of the 11 puppies from the third and last litter of his 8-year-old pet, Molly Belle, were due to leave his homemade outdoor kennel just four days before the skunk attack.

“They were going to new homes, new lives,” he said.

The attack on Topich’s puppies is the second rabid skunk case in Thorndike this year. The first was confirmed in mid-April, according to data compiled by the Maine Center for Disease Control.

Statewide, there have been more than 50 confirmed cases of rabid animals this year, including 30 rabid raccoons, 15 skunks, two cats, two gray foxes, and a bat.

“We knew that by January of this year we were seeing a spike,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

The number of confirmed rabies cases in the state have been about 65 each year for the last three years. This year, there have already been 51 cases, which means that the number is on pace to crack 100. Over the last nine years, the only time that has happened was 2006, when 127 cases were logged.

“People should be aware that the incidence is up,” Pinette said. “We’re finding more and more people and animals are being exposed.”

She said the mild winter probably has something to do with it. “You have a lot more animals around that are rabid that have picked up the virus,” she said.

Those animals that might have otherwise died in the winter have survived to pass along the virus. They are also able to travel more freely in mild weather, increasing the risk of exposures, she said.

Pinette said that people should avoid contact with wild animals, and shouldn’t feed animals, even squirrels.

“Those exposures are what put us at risk,” she said.

The deadly encounter

Topich thought the kennel he built was sufficient to protect the pups.

“It was like Fort Knox,” Topich said. “There was a sheep fence; the floor was pieces of steel roofing, and it came up 18 inches above ground level.”

It also featured a solid steel hut made of a fire truck water tank, with a car hood for a roof.

Animal Control Officer Carol Visser said that the enclosure seemed secure to her as well.

“The only better strategy to take would have been having the puppies in a house or a garage,” Visser said.

When Topich returned home from a music gig late on the night of June 23, he went out to check on the puppies, as was his habit. Topich said he makes regular rounds to check on them every few hours.

Molly alerted him that danger was in the air.

“She darted first,” Topich said. “When she does something, you know to follow suit.”

He found that his seemingly impregnable fortress was breached by a crazed skunk.

“It tunneled in under the fence and came up where the fence met the hut. When it came in, it tipped the steel plate up,” Topich said. “I tried to grab the skunk, but it ducked off.”

At 10 to 15 pounds, each of the puppies was as big as the skunk, but Topich said that it wasn’t intimidated at all.

“It’s rabid. It’s too stupid to know different sizes. It doesn’t care,” Topich said.

Visser said rabid skunks tend to target litters of puppies and kittens, but she doesn’t know why.

Topich secured the pen by stuffing the entrance hole with rocks, and went inside to consider his next move. Soon, he heard another commotion. He raced out in sneakers and a rubber raincoat to find that the skunk had burrowed in again.

The skunk was temporarily trapped, its head caught between the steel plate and the ground. Despite this, it was still attacking the puppies.

“It was snapping and snarling,” he said.

When the skunk nabbed a puppy in its jaws, Topich used his bare hands to force its mouth open. Then he killed it.

“I grabbed the skunk by the tail, and pulled it out of there,” he said. Topich whirled the skunk in the air by its tail and delivered a killing blow.

‘This had to be done’

The immediate crisis was over, but a more insidious danger loomed.

While inspecting the dogs for injury, Topich didn’t yet realize that the wriggling puppies at his feet were as good as dead already.

All of the puppies escaped serious bodily injury, but each had been exposed to the virus through direct contact with the skunk or through each other.

After reporting the incident, Topich was told by the Center for Disease Control that attempting to keep the puppies alive would be prohibitively expensive.

Each dog would have to be raised separately and individually quarantined, and subjected to a series of mandated protocols in order to ensure their health and the health of the public.

“It became overwhelming. I realized I wasn’t clinically set up to do any of that,” Topich said. “I waited almost a week before I broke down and said that this had to be done.”

Visser said that she understands the tough decision Topich was faced with.

“You can’t underestimate the seriousness of the disease,” she said. “It may have seemed harsh to euthanize the entire litter of puppies, but rabies is a progressive neurological disease that can be transmitted to any mammal, including humans, and is almost invariably fatal.”

Visser arranged for the puppies to be euthanized at the Searsport Veterinary Hospital without any out-of-pocket expenses for Topich.

“I took them all down and I just said my last good-byes,” he said. “I left them in the quarantine kennel and that’s the last I saw them.”

Topich, who makes his living largely by performing odd jobs, said that the decision to have the puppies killed meant the loss of a payday for him, but that it’s that least of his worries.

“I’m working with the people,” he said. “I’m paying them back as soon as I can.”

Meantime, Topich said that Molly Belle doesn’t understand where her puppies are.

“She goes over to where the kennel used to be and looks,” he said. “You can tell when she’s sad.”

The tragedy has motivated Topich to spread awareness about prevention, as a means to honor the slain pups.

He plans to create an awareness poster incorporating pictures of the puppies, and to raise funds for animal charities.

“You have to find the good in everything or else it drives you nuts with the grief,” Topich said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

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