BATH — Two Bath city councilors did an about-face Monday, voting against a plan to trap and kill wild animals to reduce the risk of human interaction with wildlife in response to a spate of rabid animal attacks.

The council in February unanimously backed a U.S. Department of Agriculture plan to trap and kill species known to carry rabies, such as gray and red foxes, skunks and raccoons.

Monday, in the wake of a pair of contentious hearings in which members of the public criticized the plan, Bath councilors voted 4-2 to reaffirm their support, with Councilors Raye Leonard and Terry Nordmann in opposition.

There were 16 confirmed rabies cases in Bath in 2019, half of them in foxes, according to the Portland Press Herald, which noted that was four times the number in the next closest community and twice as many as all of Cumberland County. Bath has seen four cases of rabies so far this year, all of which involved foxes. The bulk of those animals were killed and tested after attacking humans or pets.

Trapping is expected to cost more than $26,000 and will take place before the end of this month.

Nonlethal traps will be set in Bath. The plan calls for every fox, skunk and raccoon caught in the traps to be euthanized and their brain tissue tested for rabies by the USDA.

Leonard said she voted agains the plan because she was concerned about the potential of trapping healthy animals during a time when they could be pregnant or nursing, as foxes typically give birth after March.

“I think we’re going to catch more healthy animals than sick animals,” said Leonard.

Nordmann said he voted against the trapping program because it’s expensive and there’s no guarantee it will make a difference.

Scott Lindsay, a regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said he expects anywhere from two dozen to four dozen animals will be trapped and euthanized.

“You’ll get fewer red and grey foxes because there’s a lower population of them,” said Lindsay. “You’ll trap more raccoons and skunks, which also play a role in the spread of rabies.”

Councilor Jennifer DeChant said she voted in favor of going through with the trapping plan because if the city didn’t, it might be liable should more people fall victim to rabid animal attacks.

Councilor Phyllis Bailey said she voted in favor of trapping wildlife because “it will give us important data on disease prevalence in Bath.”

City councilors also voted unanimously to create a rabies response task force to research treatment options and form a long-term plan to address the rabies outbreak.

The call for oral rabies vaccines 

Katie Hansberry, president of the Maine Federation of Humane Societies and member of the Maine Rabies Workgroup, said she believes the trapping wildlife will “create a void that will be filled by more wild animals. It will be counterproductive because it increases the likelihood of human-wildlife interaction.”

Hansberry instead recommended the city create a more robust rapid response effort for local animal control officers as well as look into an oral vaccine program.

“While (oral vaccines) would not immediately address the spread of rabies during an ongoing outbreak, it would offer a future benefit in the reduction of the number of animals that could contract and spread the virus, thus reducing the risk to residents of Bath when future flare-ups occur,” said Hansberry.

Some Bath residents expressed their disapproval of the trapping plan at Monday’s meeting and at a public forum last Thursday, calling instead for oral rabies vaccines, much like those that are dropped by the USDA in northern Maine to stop the spread of rabies into Canada.

“Short term, the USDA said a vaccine program would not be effective,” said Owen. “Trapping was the only strategy offered in terms of a short-term approach.”

Officials from the USDA and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have advocated against the oral rabies vaccines, saying they’d be largely ineffective and costly.

Richard Chipman, a wildlife biologist and national rabies management coordinator for the USDA, said last week the oral rabies vaccine program is a long-duration program intended for areas of more than 25 miles. Bath is about 13 square miles.

Lindsay said wildlife requires annual vaccines because each vaccine lasts one year. If an animal does not receive a vaccine one year, it will not longer be resistant to rabies.

According to data gathered by Bailey, a 10-year oral rabies vaccine program would cost at least $800,000 to $1 million.

“Even if we can get the USDA to collaborate with us to create a vaccine program, it takes 10 years to be effective,” said Bailey. “I don’t think I could tell a child they can’t go into their backyard for 10 years.”

There is only one oral rabies vaccine licensed by the USDA, which treats a strain of raccoon rabies, which other animals can contract. The USDA doesn’t yet know what strain of rabies has been circulating in Bath.

Some Bath residents expressed concerns Monday evening over whether trapping foxes and other wildlife will increase the number of rodents in the area. Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said if there is a dip in the fox population other predators will compensate, resulting in no change in the rodent population.

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