Rabies Sunk Its Teeth Into Midcoast Maine. How To Loosen Its Grip?
A spate of attacks by rabid animals has residents of Bath and nearby towns on high alert — and choosing sides in an escalating fracas.
By Jaed Coffin | Illustration by David Plunkert
Norman Kenney, Bath’s 89-year-old retired fire chief, walks with an extendable cane — one that “a woman can fold up and put in her purse,” he says. His home, which he shares with his granddaughter and her family, is in a sleepy part of the small shipbuilding city’s South End. He built the house with his wife, who passed away four years ago — “Oh man, she could shingle,” he recalls — and from the driveway, when leaves are down, he can see the house where he grew up, one street over. He remembers when his current plot was pasture for a half dozen cows. Now, he spends most days working in the yard, bordered to the south by a tangle of woods.
In 2019, in late summer, he was out in the yard when a gray fox trotted out of the bushes. The animal was small — gray foxes generally weigh less than 15 pounds. Kenney shouted at it, thinking it would skitter away. Instead, though, it stared at him, then lowered its head and charged.
Kenney retreated until he was backed up against his fence. The fox lunged at his leg and got a hold of his pants. He shook it off, but it ran at him a second time, then a third. “Mr. Fox,” Kenney remembers thinking, after the animal clamped down on his shoe, “it’s either you or me.”
He managed to kick at it, then to get his foot on its neck, pinning it to the ground while “hollering and screaming” for help. His granddaughter’s husband, Tristan Koehling, came running, armed with a pitchfork, but by the time he arrived, Kenney had already killed the fox. Koehling captured the scene with a photo, Kenney’s left foot still on the dead fox’s neck, unused pitchfork propped against the fence, American Gothic meets 18th-century English foxhunting tableau. In the nearly nine decades Kenney had lived in the South End, that was the first rabid animal he had ever encountered. It wouldn’t, however, be the last.
At the time, Bath was in the midst of a rabies outbreak. Kenney’s run-in was the seventh fox attack of 2019, and the 8,000-person community would notch 11 more by year’s end. Whenever local police killed an animal they thought was rabid, they sent it to a lab in Augusta that tests bodies and severed heads from around the state. That year, Bath’s 16 confirmed cases in animals accounted for nearly one out of every six cases statewide, more than any other municipality.
The previous year, Bath had only two positive cases. Many prior years, there weren’t any. To address residents’ concerns, the city set up a forum with state and municipal officials. People wanted to know what had caused the outbreak, when it would go away, and how it could be addressed. They didn’t get simple answers. Instead, state veterinarian Michele Walsh explained that the rise in cases couldn’t be pinned to any single factor. Rabies is always present in Maine wildlife, and the local ebb and flow of cases is largely unpredictable. Brunswick, Bath’s neighbor to the west, had experienced a similar surge in rabies a year earlier — seven attacks and nine confirmed cases in animals. But in 2019, the case count dropped to three.
The one reassurance given at Bath’s city forum was that winter was setting in, and rabies transmission tends to die down with colder temperatures, when animals that carry the disease — skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats — become less active. In the meantime, Scott Lindsay, a biologist from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, encouraged residents to remain alert, keep track of their cats and dogs, and keep their yards free of bird feeders and trash. He also suggested residents arm themselves with pepper spray.
A couple of weeks after the community forum, Norman Kenney was returning from running errands when he heard a sound like meowing behind the garage. In the fading light, he thought he could make out the shape of his cat, but when it came nearer, he saw that it was another gray fox. This one, he noticed right away, was bigger than the first.
The fox charged. Kenney swung at it with his collapsible cane. With each impact, the cane came apart piece by piece. The fox leapt at him, and he threw his arm up to protect himself, but the fox sunk its teeth into his eyebrow. Together, man and fox hit the pavement. Kenney managed to clasp his hands around the fox’s neck. He had a life alert button around his neck and a cell phone on his belt, but he couldn’t risk giving up his grip on the flailing animal.
For 10 minutes, as dusk turned to dark, Kenney lay in his driveway, holding on, calling out for help, hoping someone would hear him. A pickup truck drove by, and Kenney yelled as loud as he could, but the driver didn’t stop. Then, a man jogging down the street heard Kenney’s shouts. “Put your foot on his neck, right between his head and his shoulders, and press for all your worth,” Kenney instructed.
Finally, the fox “withered and gave up,” Kenney says, though it wasn’t yet dead. He handed the jogger his bloody cell phone to call 911. Soon after, a police officer shot the fox three times. At the hospital, Kenney remembers “a nurse on each side, and they had three big needles.” He received a tetanus shot and the standard rabies treatment — injections of rabies antibodies and the rabies vaccine. The treatment generally costs about $3,500. Kenney says Medicare covered all but $95.
In 1975, George M. Baer, the head of the rabies lab at the Centers for Disease Control, produced The Natural History of Rabies, a collection of writing by various experts that became the definitive account of the disease. The story starts overseas, as rabies wasn’t known to exist in pre-colonial America. The disease percolated in Europe until the 16th century, when notable clusters of cases starting popping up across the central and western parts of the continent. Control efforts were haphazard and brutal. By the 18th century, English citizens were keeping their dogs inside and earning bounties for killing strays. In Madrid, authorities sanctioned the slaughter of 900 dogs in a single day.
At some point, rabies traveled to the American colonies aboard ships. The disease’s long incubation period — generally a month or two in dogs, sometimes longer — meant that an infected animal could sometimes make the six- to eight-week journey without showing symptoms. In short order, dogs passed rabies to wildlife, where distinct strains developed within different species (because a skunk interacts with skunks and is therefore likely to infect other skunks, a fox other foxes, and so on). Each strain is still just as easily transmitted between species.
In the mid-18th century, rabies became alarmingly frequent in Boston and other cities. After the Civil War, the disease was prevalent across the country, traversing the Great Plains in the 1830s. “Hydrophobic” skunks — so called because, once rabies infects the brain, it causes an aversion to water — became such a common sight that settlers knew them as “phobey cats.” As recently as the 1950s, a skunk outbreak in Minnesota left wildlife officials measuring the dead animals by the cord, stacking bodies like firewood.
French scientist Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine in 1885, significantly reducing rabies mortality in humans, and the 1950s brought to the U.S. the widespread vaccination of dogs — to that point, the primary spreaders of rabies to humans. Around the world, some 59,000 people still die of the disease each year, mostly in less developed countries. In the U.S., 30,000 to 60,000 people receive treatment annually after possible exposures, although just two, on average, die of the disease. Once bitten, and without treatment, a person will start exhibiting symptoms in somewhere between 10 days and several weeks, after which point rabies is nearly 100 percent lethal — fever, muscle spasms, delirium, and eventually death.
In Maine, where 147 people received post-exposure treatment in 2019, the last human rabies death was recorded in 1937. But among wildlife, the disease has been on a slow burn for “a very long time,” as the state government’s Rabies Management Guidelines put it, with the two oldest strains from foxes and skunks. The most prevalent strain, from raccoons, is a relatively recent arrival.
Raccoon rabies first exploded in Florida, in the 1950s. Over the next couple of decades, hunting clubs in the mid-Atlantic paid to have raccoons shipped from Florida, to restock declining local populations. In one instance, a club in Virginia received a shipment of 3,500 Florida raccoons. Upon arrival, four of the raccoons were dead, later confirmed to have died of rabies. The other 3,496 were set loose, and in that way, humans accelerated the northward spread of that rabies strain. Maine recorded its first 10 cases in 1994.
A few years later, to prevent further spread, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched an ambitious vaccination campaign. The agency delivers about 9 million baited oral doses of rabies vaccine from Maine to Arkansas annually, primarily via airdrop and mostly along a narrow corridor that serves as a buffer zone confining raccoon rabies to eastern states. Hundreds of thousands of those doses land in northern Maine. Over the next several decades, the USDA wants to turn its focus to local hotspots and eradicate the strain altogether. Of course, that’s no help for now in Bath, where, even though each of the 2019 attacks came from an infected fox, the raccoon variant of the virus accounted for all but one confirmed case.
Statewide, the trend line of overall rabies cases has held more or less steady for the past 25 years, but totals fluctuate from year to year, often correlated with the severity of winters. The geography shifts too, but central and southern Maine account for most incidences. In any given place at any given moment, the actual risk to humans is small. Still, don’t we shiver at the memory of Old Yeller or Cujo? Stories about rabies have an outsize hold on the imagination.
Norman Kenney’s fox encounters made headlines in the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News. Then, he got calls from a paper in Maryland and a talk show in Texas, among other news outlets. There was also, as Kenney recalls, “one of those so-called comedians who comes on after the 11 o’clock news” — NBC Late Night host Seth Meyers, who quipped, “Usually the only person who’s the victim of this many Fox attacks is Hillary!”
Kenney had unwittingly joined a pantheon of Maine rabies heroes, attack survivors who, in the past several years, have been showered with media attention, mostly of the “gee whiz, ain’t Maine wild” variety, tailored for virality. The group’s foundational member was then-21-year-old Rachel Borch, of Hope. In 2017, a rabid raccoon latched onto her hand while she was jogging on a wooded trail about a mile from her home. She drowned the animal in a shallow puddle, and the story showed up everywhere from Esquire to Runner’s World to Maxim.
The oldest member of the club is 95-year-old Robert Galen, of Brunswick, who was out fixing his deck when he had to resort to beating a fox over the head with a board. The youngest is 6-year-old Julia Davis, of Bath, who was bitten on the leg by a fox while playing at her friend’s house. She was saved by the family’s dog, Socks, who dragged the fox away and killed it.
James Ross, of Lisbon, killed a rabid fox with a meat cleaver in his kitchen. Eliza Watson, of Gray, was tending her chickens when a fox bit her hand. She couldn’t manage to strangle it, so she stuffed it in a turkey-frying pot and held the lid down with all her weight until a game warden arrived and shot the animal.
In the midcoast, such stories are everywhere, and not all of them make the news. I live in Brunswick, and one summer night in 2018, I was eating outside with my family when a skunk started running across our yard, headed for my wife and 4-year-old daughter, who were lying in a hammock. Barefoot, I sprinted toward the skunk, kicked it several feet, then hit it with a stick until I had killed it. The only celebrity it earned me was among neighbors, the story making the rounds at backyard campfires. I keep that stick hanging from a nail in my garage.
When I asked Kenney how he felt about his stint in the spotlight, he shrugged. “I don’t mind telling my story. I’ve told it a lot of times,” he said. “I just try not to stretch it more than what actually happened.”
Last year, Bath’s city council reached out to the USDA about starting a rabies-control program — the department regularly works with local governments. The USDA’s national rabies management coordinator, Rich Chipman, explained that any vaccination program is slow to develop and take effect. The council, feeling pressure from worried constituents, pushed for a more immediate measure. Trapping and killing is a blunt approach premised on reducing the population density of wildlife capable of spreading rabies in order to limit instances of attacks on humans. Many experts are skeptical of its efficacy. The council voted 4–2 in favor, and for a period of about two weeks in March, box traps of varying sizes, set throughout the city, targeted raccoons, foxes, and skunks. Any of those animals, whether rabid or not, would be killed.
While some community members welcomed any action on the issue, others objected and formed a Facebook group, Save the Fox, which has more than 600 members. Posts include adorable photos of foxes. Opponents dubbed the group Save the Rabies. Local accountant and Bath native Elizabeth Dingley is a prominent member, the daughter of a police officer and a “free-spirited hippie lady” who raised her to be “kind to animals and fair to the people around you.” She once had her own close call with the rabies outbreak. In the South End, not far from Norman Kenney’s house, Dingley watched from her window two years ago as a pair of foxes entered her yard acting strangely. She called the police, who found and shot one of the sick animals. Later, Dingley stepped outside to get in her car, and the other fox charged her, head down. She turned around and slammed the door.
“I feel bad for that animal,” she says. “They have as much right to exist on this planet as you and I do. And that’s what I’ve been saying to people all along. If there’s a sickness, eradicate the sickness. Don’t try to eradicate the animal.”
Dingley and her Save the Fox cohort advocated instead for an oral vaccination program in Bath, but city officials countered that it wouldn’t address the ongoing spike quickly enough. According to the USDA, large-scale vaccination only works by blanketing large areas over extended periods of time. City councilor Phyllis Bailey looked into the matter and estimated that, effective or not, a 10-year vaccination program would cost the city at least $600,000.
The USDA trapping program cost the city about $27,000. That worked out to almost $1,000 per animal captured and killed: 24 raccoons, four skunks, zero foxes. According to a final report on the program, a dozen squirrels, 10 possums, a pair of porcupines, and a woodchuck were released, and three cats were returned to their owners. But not a single animal tested positive for the raccoon rabies variant. “We don’t know what it would be like if we hadn’t done it,” council member Mari Eosco said to the Portland Press Herald, “Maybe one of those animals is the one that was going to spread it to 20 other animals.”
Dingley ran for city council last fall. She worried her Save the Fox stance might turn off too many voters, but she won the four-way election by 129 votes. “I ran because I was upset with the way they had handled the rabies situation,” she says. “Their solution of trapping and killing all animals regardless of whether they had rabies or not didn’t keep our residents any safer. The rabid foxes were still out there, and we still have a lot of work to do.”
One day this past fall, Norman Kenney answered his door with his damaged extendable cane in hand, showing off teeth marks where the fox had gnawed at it. The puncture wounds he’d received to his hand and his face hadn’t left any scars. “Tough old bird, I guess,” he said. “I heal up pretty well.”
It had been 10 months since his second fox encounter, and in that time, rabies cases had continued to add up in Bath. He gestured across his yard and said, “Well, let’s go down to Foxville.” From above a slight depression at the edge of the woods, he pointed out where he thought the foxes had a den. Then, he traced the way to the spot of the first attack, retelling the event in fine detail. After that, he headed to the driveway, site of the second attack. “There used to be some blood,” he said, pointing at the asphalt. It had since washed away in the rain. He mentioned that he tried, unsuccessfully, to find the shells from the bullets police had used to kill the fox. They would have made nice souvenirs.
Kenney insisted that the two life-and-death experiences hadn’t shaken him, although he had started carrying a stick with him whenever he went out to check his mail, sometimes pepper spray too. “I guess this has always been kind of a quiet neighborhood,” he said, glancing down the street and back across the lawn.
He also mentioned that he recently bought a leather holster for carrying a small .22-caliber pistol while he works in the yard. He keeps the gun loaded with rat shot — little pellets that are only good within a range of a few paces. He hadn’t seen any more rabid foxes, he said. But he had heard some distant yapping in the woods.
The print version of this story reported that a vaccination program would cost the City of Bath “nearly a million dollars.” The online story has been corrected to reflect instead a conservative estimate of $600,000.