The mixture targets racoons

in the northern part of the state.

HOULTON (AP) – Nearly 300,000 bags filled with a concoction of fish meal, wax and rabies vaccines have been dropped from cargo planes into the northern Maine woods in an attempt to stem the spread of rabies by the state’s raccoon population.

Two Canadian cargo planes with a dozen volunteers took off from Houlton International Airport Sunday.

As the planes crisscrossed the Maine-Canadian border, the volunteers fed the bags onto a conveyor belt that led to a chute in the planes’ bellies, from which the packets were dropped into the woods.

The fishy odor of the bait inside the bags will attract animals from miles away, said Laura Bigler, a wildlife biologist and epidemiologist at Cornell University who is in charge of the program. If the raccoons bite into the pouches, they will get a dose of a rabies vaccine and thereby develop an immunity to the disease.

The endeavor, paid for with $270,000 from Canada and $50,000 from the federal government, is the last piece of a nationwide effort to eradicate raccoon rabies and halt its spread into Canada.

“It is cheaper to live without rabies and create a barrier than to incur the costs that rabies brings,” Bigler said on the tarmac Sunday. “In just New York last year, 3,000 people were exposed to rabies and treatment costs at least $3,000 each.”

Creating a rabies-free barrier between Maine and Canada is part of a three-pronged program under way on the Appalachian Ridge, between Florida and Alabama, and in the Northeast, including New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Bigler is in charge of the Northeast program and is often referred to as the Coon Lady or the Rabies Lady, names that make her chuckle. She sits on the rabies task force for the Canadian provinces and has been tracking the spread of rabies and the bait program for nearly a decade.

The vaccine has successfully eradicated coyote rabies in Texas using the same airdrop method being used in Maine, she said. The vaccine will protect coyotes, raccoons, foxes and, to a lesser extent, skunks.

In Maine, there have already been 45 animal rabies cases this year, according to state health officials.

Bigler has been working for two years to get the Maine program off the ground.

“New Brunswick has had 60 cases of rabies over the last three years,” she said. “They couldn’t get permission to drop in Maine due to budget constraints and policy, but now that the federal government and Canada (are) involved, Maine is on board. New Brunswick is thrilled to death. They’ve been holding a finger in the dike for a long time.”

Maine’s state veterinarian, Don Hoenig, said the cost of rabies to the state goes well beyond the human measure.

“From an agricultural viewpoint, it costs Maine’s farmers thousands and thousands of dollars to vaccinate their livestock and still we lose animals every year,” he said.

Although the pilots stopped Sunday’s air drop over populated areas, lakes and highways, it is possible humans may pick up a bait packet. Bigler said anyone finding a bait bag should not open it, but should call the 800 number provided on the packet.

Bigler said biologists will follow up in about 30 days with live trapping and to extract a tooth from each raccoon caught.

The animals will be outfitted with ear tags, and tests on the tooth will indicate if they are vaccinated.

AP-ES-08-26-03 0216EDT

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