CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Hundreds of people turned out in the cold Saturday for free rabies clinics across Cape May County.

Clinics were offered at five locations across the county Saturday to inoculate dogs and cats against the potentially fatal disease, which has been observed in several recent cases in South Jersey.

“My vet told me about the clinic,” said Terri Eames, of Lower Township, who stood in line with her German shepherd, Cooper, at the clinic conducted at the Middle Township Public Works yard.

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“He has all his other shots. But it’s a safeguard. We have raccoons living behind my house,” she said.

Rabies is caused by a viral infection and is most commonly found in raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes and groundhogs.

Cape May County observed the fewest cases of rabies in wildlife in South Jersey in the past five years, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services. The county had at least one case of rabies in wildlife in 2012 but none in 2011, according to state totals. Atlantic County had at least two cases, including a dead bat found outside a Northfield home. Cumberland County had five wildlife cases through September of last year.

An Upper Township family had to euthanize its pet dog after it was bitten by a rabid raccoon in April. The small dog had not been inoculated against rabies in three years.

Middle Township Animal Control Officer Bill Candell handled a rabid raccoon on Dec. 22 that was killed by a dog in Middle Township.

The dog, which was up to date on its rabies vaccinations, was fine after getting a single booster shot. Candell, on the other hand, decided to take a course of seven painful injections just in case. Once symptoms of rabies occur, there is no cure.

“They made me into a pincushion,” Candell said. “I had gloves on but there was a hole in the glove and I noticed a cut on my finger. I got the shots as a precaution.”

The county for years baited raccoons and other rabies-prone mammals with food laced with an oral vaccine in a program that cost more than $50,000 per year, Freeholder Gerald Thornton said.

The county Mosquito Department sometimes dropped the baits from a helicopter to reach patches of woods behind homes.

But Thornton said the county stopped baiting in recent years as rabies disappeared from local populations of wildlife.

“The reason was we believed it was under control. We hadn’t had any active cases in the county. We were probably the only county that was doing rabies baiting at the time,” Thornton said. “If we started to recognize an outbreak of rabies, we would consider restarting the baiting program.”

Inside Middle Township’s Public Works garage, Dr. Mark Logan, a veterinarian who lives and has a practice in Middle Township, injected dogs and cats with the pink-tinged vaccine in an assembly-line process that took only a few seconds per animal.

Logan said it is time for the county to reconsider baiting.

“Rabies baiting should continue,” he said. “And it’s obvious that every dog and cat in Cape May County should be vaccinated against rabies.”

Candell, who is planning to get his eighth and final rabies shot this month, agreed.

“If they had dropped the pellets, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Candell said.

In the meantime, Candell said, people who observe foxes, skunks or raccoons in daylight hours should report them to police or animal control, especially if the animals are behaving oddly.

“Normally a healthy raccoon will take off if it sees you. One that stands its ground will probably have rabies,” he said. “That goes for opossums and skunks as well.”

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