Effort launches to vaccinate raccoons against rabies

September 22, 2021 Raanan Geberer
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Raccoons have been seen in Green-Wood Cemetery, Prospect Park, Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Marine Park and elsewhere in the borough for years, much to the discomfort of local residents.

The animals, considered cute by some but as pests by most, feed on garbage, can collapse their spines to get into small spaces, and, worst of all, spread rabies.

Now, in an effort to deal with the problem, the city Health Department, along with several other entities, is starting an effort to vaccinate raccoons in wooded areas of Brooklyn, as well as the city’s other boroughs.

If you think “vaccinate” means that Health Department personnel will grab the pesky critters and stick them with a needle, you’re wrong. Wildlife biologists with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will distribute individual baits containing an oral rabies vaccine, using bait stations or hand-tossing them.

In some locations, such as Gateway National Recreation Area in southeast Brooklyn, the Health Department will fly a helicopter at low altitudes to deploy the vaccine baits.

The small, brown-colored baits are fish-scented and resemble a ketchup packet. They contain a small amount of pink, liquid vaccine. Raccoons are attracted to the odor, and when they chew the bait, they can become immunized, protecting them against rabies infection.

“Approximately 1.6 million baits are targeted for control of raccoon rabies in New York State during 2021, with 72,000 designated for New York City,” said Dr. Laura L. Bigler, wildlife rabies vaccination program coordinator at Cornell University.

Rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease. It can spread to people and pets if they are bitten by a rabid animal. In NYC, rabies is mostly found in raccoons. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system.

Not only have raccoons infested the parks at night, some of them have invaded subway stations, causing disruptions. For example, in 2020, a raccoon was seen numerous times in the Nevins Street subway station on the 2, 3, 4 and 5 lines, causing numerous delays. Eventually, experts trapped it in a cage and released it in Prospect Park.

Earlier, in 2016, an MTA train operator said he let go of an N train’s master controller after being startled by three of the critters at the 18th Avenue station in Brooklyn.

Rabies isn’t the only dangerous raccoon malady people have to contend with. In 2018, several people in Kensington and Greenwood Heights reported seeing sick raccoons, who may have been suffering from distemper, wandering out of Prospect Park into nearby neighborhoods. One was seen walking around in circles. Another had trouble standing up and left piles of diarrhea and vomit.

At the time, the Parks Department collected 87 Prospect Park raccoons, and seven tested positive for distemper, according to published reports.

At times, raccoons prefer people’s backyards to local parks. In 2012, Aaron Brashear, a community leader in Greenwood Heights, told the Eagle he had seen neighborhood raccoons occasionally run across the street to Green-Wood Cemetery, but they soon returned to the backyards.
A 2012 TV nature program on raccoons, “Raccoon Nation,” revealed that citified raccoons often eat at trash dumps that become “gathering places” for local wildlife. These locations attract rats, feral cats and raccoons. But even the rats know to wait until the raccoons are finished.

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