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    Face to face with a rabies threat

    An encounter in a Palm Harbor garage prompts bait drops and reminders to get pets vaccinated.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON and ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- Kara Chudy rarely lets her dog, Barney Fife, go into the garage of the family's home in the Beacon Groves subdivision. But she did Thursday morning, and both got a scare.

    "We heard a fight," and the dog bumped into a large armoire, said Chudy, 37. "Then there was this raccoon just staring me in the face. . . . That was the biggest raccoon I ever saw. He was the size of two cats. It was huge."

    It was also rabid.

    Pinellas County Animal Services officials said the animal was the first rabid raccoon to turn up in Pinellas County this year.

    "And hopefully the last," said Dr. Kenny Mitchell, Pinellas County Animal Services director.

    The incident, along with a continuing anti-rabies program, has prompted animal services officials to begin spreading bait squares containing doses of rabies vaccine in two areas of Pinellas. A helicopter began dropping the bait in mid Pinellas on Tuesday. Officials said the bait would be dropped in the Brooker Creek area and Oldsmar during the coming month to create a buffer zone with Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

    Barney Fife, a 10-year-old boxer, was not bitten or scratched in his confrontation with the raccoon. But Chudy said authorities told her that blood or saliva from the raccoon could carry rabies, so she and officials have taken some precautions.

    For Chudy, that meant ripping up the carpet in the garage and painting the garage floor so that no one was exposed to any fluids the raccoon might have left behind. She also discarded a basket of laundry and some newspapers where the raccoon apparently made a bed, as well as a 50-pound bag of dog food that it had ripped open.

    Because Barney Fife was very nearly up-to-date on his rabies vaccination -- it was five days past due -- authorities think the dog will be fine. Chudy said her vet gave the dog a booster an hour after the incident and said the dog should be fine because she has stayed current with vaccinations. To be safe, they have quarantined Barney Fife at the house for 45 days.

    Officials said the encounter is a good reminder how important it is to get pets vaccinated, Mitchell said.

    "The emphasis is that if (pets) have a current shot, they will be in good shape," Mitchell said. "Barney was a good dog and had a good owner."

    Chudy said the raccoon appeared to have been injured -- not by Barney Fife, named for the nervous television deputy played by Don Knotts -- but by something that happened before she saw it. The animal tried dragging itself away by its front limbs, but a garbage man wearing heavy gloves picked it up and put it in an empty trash can for animal control officers.

    Despite being rabid, the raccoon "didn't put up a fuss at all" when picked up, Chudy said.

    Pets that are not currently vaccinated and are exposed to a rabid animal can be humanely destroyed or placed under a strict quarantine for six months at the owner's expense. Owners also can choose to have their pets receive four rabies vaccinations while under the quarantine.

    While "post-exposure" vaccinations are not guaranteed to save the pet from rabies, "it's better than not vaccinating, period," Mitchell said.

    When the county gets a report of a rabid raccoon, animal services workers place traps and baits laced with rabies vaccine in a 1-mile area around the site of the encounter, Mitchell said. The traps are supposed to catch raccoons that may have been exposed to the rabid raccoon.

    The county typically gets about one case of raccoon strain of rabies a year. Raccoons are the most common carriers of rabies in Florida.

    On Tuesday, Chudy said Barney Fife appeared to be doing fine, but the thought that her dog could have been injured by a rabid raccoon disturbed her.

    In her 16 years on Orangepointe Avenue, she said she had never even seen a raccoon. She lives in a house at the opposite end of the subdivision from the nearest woods, but still the raccoon could have just been passing through.

    "This could happen to anybody," she said. "They think they're untouchable but they're not."

    - Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com. Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183.

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