Reality check on rabies

Debbie Lawes
Citizen Special

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

To describe Ontario's raccoon rabies program as a "phenomenal success" is to overlook the facts ("Province renews raccoon rabies control program," June 6).

Just three days earlier, this same program came under attack from Ottawa's health, recreation and social services committee. By unanimous vote, the committee requested that the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources:

  • Discontinue its controversial practice of "depopulation" (mass slaughtering of animals within five kilometres of a positive rabies case);
  • Adopt a more "effective, cost-efficient and humane strategy" to raccoon rabies control;
  • Recognize the importance of allowing wildlife rehabilitation in rabies control; and
  • Work co-operatively with municipalities and others to provide "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."

Ottawans have first-hand experience with the ministry's rabies program, which resulted in the closing of North America's most progressive wildlife rehabilitation centre in 2002, the needless euthanizing of thousands of healthy animals and the starvation of even more orphaned baby animals.

According to documents obtained through freedom of information, about $6 million is spent annually by the ministry to control and eradicate rabies from our wildlife populations. This is triple the $2 million the ministry publicly claims to spends on rabies, and doesn't include millions of dollars more spent on research and testing healthy wildlife.

Raccoon rabies has been responsible for only one human death in the 50 years since the disease was discovered. Despite this, Ontario stands alone in North America for using the most-expensive approach to raccoon rabies control.

While the program includes aerial drops of vaccine-laced baits -- which have proven highly effective across North America in vaccinating rabies vector species (raccoons, skunks and foxes) at a cost of about $200 a square kilometre -- it also uses a point infection control (PIC) program that consists of a controversial practice of "depopulation" -- trapping and killing all vector species within five kilometres of a positive case. Between five and 10 kilometres of a positive case, the ministry traps, vaccinates and releases vector species. Aerial baiting is used beyond this range.

The PIC program is highly labour intensive, involving dozens of trappers who must capture and kill, or capture and vaccinate, each animal. The cost: as much as $1,500 a square kilometre.

Documents obtained through freedom of information reveal that of the more than 9,700 animals killed over the past four years in Eastern Ontario under this program, 99 per cent were found to be healthy. So why does Ontario continue to stand alone in its approach to rabies control?

A provincial audit and independent assessment of the PIC program would be the first step to finding the answer.

In response to these issues, wildlife rehabilitators have partnered with environmental and animal welfare interests to form the Ontario Wildlife Coalition, which is fighting to end the ministry's draconian policies governing wildlife rehabilitation and the unnecessary slaughter of thousands of healthy wildlife in the name of rabies control.

Immediately before last year's Ontario election, 11 Liberal candidates from Eastern Ontario, including now-Premier Dalton McGuinty, pledged in writing to review the situation. If the Liberals are serious about getting the province's financial house in order, they can start with a serious review of the PIC program at the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Debbie Lawes, a board member of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre, is a founding member of the Ontario Wildlife Coalition.

The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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