Ontario government calls for scientific review of rabies-raccoon program

Blair Edwards
Kanata Kourier-Standard

June 11, 2004

The Ontario government should scrap its “depopulation” raccoon-rabies program and license wildlife centres to treat animals possibly infected with the disease, recommends a city committee report.

The health, recreation and social services committee recommended last week (June 3) that city council pressure the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to stop trapping and killing all foxes, skunks and raccoons within a five-kilometre radius of an animal found infected with rabies.

Ontario’s rabies policy calls for all vector animals (species which could transmit the disease such as foxes, skunks and other raccoons) found within a five- to 10-kilometre radius to be trapped and vaccinated, and to drop vaccine-laced baits in the area outside that zone.

“The main portion of this is just to get back to a more humane wildlife response,” said Donna DuBreuil, president of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre (OCWC). “We’re asking the provincial government to, number one, review the raccoon-rabies program and to eliminate depopulation as a tactic – in other words, killing wildlife.”

Prior to the provincial election, the Liberal government promised to review the MNR regulations, with 11 Liberal candidates from eastern Ontario, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, pledging in writing to look into the controversy.

KEEPING OUR PROMISE

David Ramsay, Minister of Natural Resources, says the government is keeping its promise.

In March, Ramsay called for a scientific review on the rabies-raccoon program by the province’s rabies-advisory committee, a group of MNR scientists.

The committee will report to Ramsay in July.

“I’ve heard the concerns that the wildlife coalition has brought forward – that’s why in March I asked for this review,” he said. “I would wait to see what the review (says) … these decisions are based on science.”

Ramsay met with the Ontario Wildlife Coalition this week to discuss their concerns.

The MNR says the high-risk area will remain the same for 2004, unless further cases warrant an expansion.

The City of Ottawa committee’s other recommendations were:

  • Ask the MNR to bring Ontario in line with other areas of North America that consider wildlife rehabilitators as a vital part of their rabies control program and license wildlife rehabilitators to handle rabies vector species while using “universally-accepted” standards for the care and release of all wildlife
     
  • Ask the MNR to make wildlife rehabilitators a vital part of its rabies control program and license them to handle rabies-vector species while using “universally-accepted standards” for the care and release of wildlife
     
  • Ask the MNR to co-operate with cities, community organizations and wildlife rehabilitators in providing an effective wildlife response based on realistic and progressive public education, not alarmist fear-mongering and the denial of help for people seeking to assist wildlife in distress.

HIGH-RISK AREA

The MNR confiscated 34 raccoons and one skunk during a raid on the OCWC in September  2002.

MNR staff said releasing the animals in a high-risk rabies area could help spread the disease, which can be passed on to both humans and pets.

In 1999 –  the disease’s first year in the province –  cases were reported northwest of Prescott, Ont. Two years later, two cases of raccoon rabies were reported in Smiths Falls; then other cases cropped up near Ventnor (north of Prescott) near Hwy. 416 – the Ventnor node is less than 20 kilometres from Ottawa’s city boundary.

According to MNR scientists, raccoons can travel up to 50 kilometres per year. The incubation period for rabies can last up to one year – they can carry the disease without showing any symptoms.

In 2002, the MNR expanded its rabies high risk area to include Ottawa, which brought the ministry into conflict with the OCWC.

Under MNR regulations, any raccoon-rabies vector species caught within a high-risk area must be released within one kilometre of the capture site.

In 2003, Dr. Chris Davies of the MNR told the city’s health, recreation and social services committee that without a rapid and precautionary response to cases of raccoon rabies the disease could spread across Ontario in about 10 years.

That would cost the province between $11 million and $15 million annually in post-exposure treatments, diagnostic costs, vet bills, livestock losses and investigations, he said at the time.

Since Ottawa was declared a high-risk area, the number of confirmed rabies cases has dropped from 45 cases in 2001 to 16 in 2003, according to the MNR.

Davies said the province’s raccoon-rabies program should eradicate the disease within Ontario in four to six years – part of a plan to eradicate the disease in North America within 30 years.

BOONDOGGLE

“We really feel the rabies program has been a big financial boondoggle,” said DuBreuil, adding that an access to information request shows the MNR spends $6 million every year to stamp out the disease in Ontario wildlife.

“Rabies is the lowest risk disease in North America – yet millions are spent on it.”

She says the depopulation program leaves orphaned animals – many of which are discovered in urban areas.

The MNR says it spends $4.6 million every year total to combat rabies in all species and $2.4 million to fight raccoon-rabies.

The Ontario Wildlife Coalition objects to the MNR regulation to release an animal within one kilometre of where it is captured.

“If you find an orphaned animal in a parking lot you’re hardly going to return it.”

The MNR should restrict its raccoon rabies program to oral vaccinations distributed by airplane – a program successfully used in Ohio, which costs 10 times less than  Ontario’s program.

Kanata Councillor Peggy Feltmate said the recommendations do not commit the city to spend any money.

But if the MNR changes its policy to allow the OCWC to start its wildlife rehabilitation program, the centre will request money to fund its hotline.

“I would anticipate they would be looking for city funding.”

She said, “What I want to see is the animals treated humanely but as well, the people protected and having a way to deal with the animals when they find them in an urban environment.”