Opposition is mounting against a plan by Bath city officials to partner with state and federal agencies in trapping and killing potentially rabid animals to address a spate of alarming fox attacks and near misses.

A Facebook group, led by local artist kdb Dominguez, was created this week to mobilize the critics. Dominguez questioned whether the city considered all of its options, or the consequences of killing animals that help keep rodent populations in check.

“The most amazing thing that’s coming out of this is that it’s such a unique moment to educate about the system of predators and prey,” Dominguez said Thursday. “I’m not really an activist. I speak up for nature. If something doesn’t have a voice, someone needs to speak up for it. But I’ve found that a lot of people want to speak up.”

Created Wednesday, the Facebook group had 200 members Thursday afternoon and featured scores of comments and replies.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife issued a news release Thursday that outlined why the trapping is being proposed and attempted to blunt some of the criticism.

Last week, the Bath City Council voted to spend $26,000 on what’s called “controlled trapping.” The details are still being worked out, but experts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture would set as many as 20 traps around the city this month. The animals would be trapped alive, and any foxes, raccoons or skunks caught would be euthanized and tested for rabies. Any other animals caught would be released.

The decision was made after a sustained rash of fox encounters put the community on edge.

City spokeswoman Lindsey Goudreau said she expected some backlash to the trapping plan, but worries that some of it might be rooted in misinformation. Some news stories last week indicated that as many as 400 animals would be killed.

Kdb Dominguez of Bath started a Facebook group opposed to the city’s plan to trap and kill animals and test them for rabies. Dominguez, an artist whose works often center around nature, said, “I’m not really an activist. I speak up for nature.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“That’s not an accurate number,” she said, adding that she believed it was derived from the number of traps (20), the number of days the traps will be out (10) and the number of times each day the traps will be checked or emptied (2). “We expected this to create a little outcry, but we’re sort of at a place where we’re darned if we do, darned if we don’t.”

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said she could not discuss details until a cooperative service agreement has been reached with the city. Goudreau said once that happens, the city would host a public meeting to provide more details, but it hadn’t been scheduled as of Thursday.

Dominguez hopes people turn out to express their concerns. She said the impact of killing foxes, and raccoons and skunks, is not insignificant. Those animals are relied on to control the population of smaller mammals like mice, voles and rats. And those smaller animals are major carriers of ticks, whose population already has exploded over the last several years.

“Everything is connected,” she said. “If you take something out, you disrupt the whole balance.”

Nate Webb, wildlife division director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said state and federal officials use controlled trapping regularly to manage certain wildlife populations. He said although it will certainly help address the rabies outbreak, that isn’t the only consideration.

Rabies is a viral disease that infects the nervous system of mammals, making the infected animal unusually aggressive. It is transmitted primarily through bites and exposure to saliva or spinal fluid from an infected animal. If untreated, it can be fatal.

“We see this as a human health issue now,” he said.

Norman Kenney, 88, had a black eye, bites and scratches after being attacked by a rabid fox in January outside his home in Bath. It was the second time he’d been attacked by a fox. Speaking of the city’s plan to trap animals and test them for rabies, he said, “I think it’s good they are giving it a try.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

Though Webb said that nowhere near 400 animals will be killed, he did acknowledge that some healthy animals would likely be killed in the process.

The department’s news release Thursday attempted to answer some frequently asked questions, including: Why can’t animals just be vaccinated?

“The short answer is that it is ineffective and costly to spot treat high rabies areas,” the news release read. In other parts of the state, officials can drop oral vaccine bait from the air, but that option was ruled out for Bath.

The number of confirmed rabies cases in Bath in 2019 was 16, half of them foxes. That was four times the number in the next closest community and twice as many as all of Cumberland County.

So far in 2020, there have been four cases in Bath, all of them involving foxes.

Statewide, the number of rabies cases has increased dramatically in the last five years, from 33 in 2015 to 105 last year. Webb said part of the increase is due to more awareness and better testing. The most common animals found with rabies are raccoons and skunks, but the last three years have seen many more cases involving both grey and red foxes. Bats also are highly susceptible to rabies.

IF&W officials said the spread of disease in an animal population increases as its density increases.

“In an area like Bath, where it is not possible to hunt or trap, some animal populations have grown unchecked, and a disease like rabies can spread rapidly through a high-density population,” the department said in its release.

City officials have been told since last fall that the rabies problem would likely die off. There was a spike of cases in nearby Brunswick in 2018 that didn’t persist into the next year. So, the city advised residents to take precautions and be vigilant.

“We just weren’t seeing it go away,” Goudreau said. “We’ve had people saying they don’t go outside, or ‘I don’t send my kids out,’ or ‘I’m afraid to live in the city.’”

Norman Kenney, a former city fire chief, has been attacked not once but twice outside his home.

The first time, in September, the 88-year-old stomped on the fox and killed it. In January, Kenney was attacked a second time. This time, he tangled with the fox for more than 10 minutes before a neighbor helped pull the animal off him. Police later shot and killed the fox, which tested positive for rabies. Kenney ended up in the hospital with an eye injury.

“I don’t know if it’ll work or not,” Kenney said of the city’s plan to trap and kills some animals. “But I think it’s good they are giving it a try.”

In nearby Phippsburg, meanwhile, the town selectman decided against partnering with the USDA to set traps, opting instead to connect residents interested in trapping wildlife on their property with local trappers.

A fox attacked two people and multiple pets in Phippsburg this month before it was caught and killed.

Scott Lindsay, an IF&W wildlife biologist, said seasonal, legal fur trappers can help stem the spread of rabies by controlling wildlife populations.

Times Record Staff Writer Kathleen O’Brien contributed to this report.

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