Police warn of possible rabid foxes

By Ed Brock

Ray Rodgers and his co-workers at Earl's Welding and Repair in Forest Park never had a problem with the foxes in their area before three days ago.

But in that time they've had to shoot two of the animals that entered the shop on Watts Road and authorities believe the animals may have had rabies.

"We were sitting here working and all of a sudden we saw a fox. It just came right in the door," Rodgers said about the first encounter on Tuesday, adding that the animal left and then came in again. "We got a gun and disposed of it."

And though Rodgers says he's certain that that animal was foaming at the mouth, he was told by Clayton County Animal Control to double bag the animal and bury it, so no tests will be run to determine if it had rabies. However, the next day another employee of the store opened the door and another fox came right in.

The employee shot that one and Clayton County Board of Health officials are hoping to test it for signs of disease. But Rodgers said the animals' behavior was definitely out of character.

"They've been around here for years and never came in the shop," Rodgers said. "They never even wanted to be close to people."

A few doors down from Earl's Welding another apparently rabid fox cornered some employees of Southside Tree Service last week, said the owner of that business Billy Farmer.

"They were shooing it away and it wouldn't go," Farmer said. "It was pretty obvious something was wrong with it."

The employees shot at the fox with a BB gun several times, but when even that did not drive it away they called Farmer who came with a rifle to shoot the fox. But before he could Farmer's dog attacked the fox.

"At that point he felt threatened for us," Farmer said.

Farmer's dog had to be destroyed as a result of the attack. Farmer killed the fox and bagged it for retrieval by Animal Control.

The fox that was killed Wednesday at Earl's Welding will be tested, Board of Health spokeswoman Sheryl Taylor said, but she was checking to see if the fact that it was shot in the head might interfere with the test.

Clayton County police are taking no chances. They are putting out traps and seeking to educate the public, Capt. Jeff Turner said.

"We want to get the word out to the public, especially with school starting," Turner said.

While the foxes' behavior would certainly be considered unusual, rabies isn't the only explanation, said Nick Nicholson, senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for Clayton and other metro counties.

Distemper, the parvo virus and even an injury to the head can cause similar behavior, Nicholson said.

"There's no way to tell from the symptoms," Nicholson said.

Animals suffering from rabies or the other diseases aren't necessarily violent in behavior, but can also appear to be uncoordinated or confused.

This is also the time of year when Nicholson's department begins receiving almost daily reports of foxes and coyotes. The animals can be driven out into public by construction, but they are also hunting more during times when they are weaning their pups.

Longer daylight hours and the fact that more people are outside also contributes to the increase in sightings.

"People are seeing foxes where they didn't know they were there before," Nicholson said. "People are naturally concerned when they see an animal."

But the foxes and coyotes can live in any empty lot even in urban areas, Nicholson said. He usually assures people that, so long as the animal is acting normally and avoiding humans, they are not a threat to anything bigger than a rabbit.

However, he advises people not to let their cats roam free because they are also prey for the foxes and coyotes. He also urges cat and dog owners to keep their pets vaccinated against rabies even if they rarely go outside.

In one instance that Nicholson investigated a family let their unvaccinated poodle out into the backyard for just a short time. It was bitten by a rabid raccoon and had to be destroyed.

Also, people should not feed their animals outside or, if they do, they should not leave the food unattended overnight in order to avoid attracting wild animals. Also, people should secure their garbage.

"What happens is those animals associate humans and human places with food," Nicholson said.

A special tip for children is that they should never approach or try to pet a wild animal.

"A sick raccoon is very approachable," Nicholson said, adding that that is what makes them dangerous.

If someone spots an animal that appears to be rabid they should avoid it and call their local animal control in most cases. However, Nicholson said that in rural areas, if a gun is available and it can be done safely, the person encountering the animal should shoot it.

Animal control workers often can't get to the scene on time and the animals should be killed before they can encounter and infect humans or other animals, Nicholson said.

According to Taylor, high-risk carriers of rabies are raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. The change in behavior by the animals that indicate infection include aggressive behavior, losing fear of humans or appearing to be affectionate or friendly. Physical symptoms include spitting, staggering, convulsions, choking and frothing at the mouth. The animals also can experience a change in voice and usually die within a week of showing signs of the disease.

Usually a person is exposed to the virus after being bitten by an infected animal, but they can also be exposed if scratched by the animal or if saliva from the animal enters an open cut or mucous membrane such as the nose, mouth or eyes.

Rabies infects the central nervous system, causing brain inflammation and then death. Early symptoms in humans can be flu-like, such as fever or headache. As the disease progresses the symptoms can include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, increased salivation, difficulty swallowing and "hydrophobia" or fear of water.

These symptoms usually appear one to three months after exposure, and death occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

Taylor added that if a person's pet has a fight with a rabid animal the owner should wear gloves when handling their pet and call their veterinarian. If vaccinated the pet will need a booster dose within five days and unvaccinated animals must be destroyed.

If rabies is only suspected in domestic animals it is quarantined for six months if not destroyed.

To report rabid animals call Clayton County Animal Control at (770) 477-3509.