Edward Markowski, of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, in his Nov. 23 commentary foolishly implies that New Jersey’s 1984 ban on leghold traps was responsible for the presence of rabies in the state from 1985 through 1989, and beyond.
Volumes of news and public health reports show that the mid-Atlantic and northeastern outbreak, which began in the late 1970s — Markowksi makes it appear a “New Jersey” outbreak — pre-dated the law and had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
As described by the Centers for Disease Control (1995): In 1971, rabies was reported for the first time from all 48 contiguous states and Alaska. Skunks (primarily the striped skunk) formed the major animal reservoir from 1961 to 1989, until they were unexpectedly supplanted by the raccoon during the rabies outbreak in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states. This outbreak is believed to have started during the late 1970s by the translocation of infected animals from a southeastern focus of the disease.
Researchers reported that the moving of animals was done by private hunting clubs — the very interests the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance represents. The clubs imported raccoons, some rabid among them, from Florida to the Virginia/West Virginia border for the purpose of hunting. The rabies strain spread mostly north and east.
Further, as reported by The New York Times in 1987: The Middle Atlantic States, which reported almost no rabid raccoons a decade ago, accounted for better than two-thirds of rabies cases in raccoons last year. The states, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, along with the District of Columbia, reported 1,195 rabies cases in raccoons in 1986, up from 1,078 the year before.”
In 2016, the CDC says that “efforts are primarily focused on delivering oral rabies vaccine-laden baits targeted at raccoons along the East Coast of the United States. Oral vaccination of wildlife (primarily foxes and raccoons) has greatly reduced the spread of rabies in numerous countries in North America and Europe.”
Fur trapping with leghold traps was legal in all of the affected states and did nothing to halt the spread of rabies, which eventually made its way to New Jersey.
In 2008, in the complete absence of leghold trapping, which had been outlawed at that point for 23 years, the New Jersey Department of Health wrote that raccoon rabies is “no longer considered to be epizootic in New Jersey, as there is now some immunity in the raccoon population and a lower number of yearly cases.”
According to the New Jersey Department of Health, bats and cats pose the biggest threat of transmitting rabies to humans. The rabies cycle would be “very hard to eradicate unless the entire raccoon population were eliminated or heavily vaccinated.” Rabies has caused “just two human deaths” in New Jersey since the early 1960s, said the department in 2015. Early treatment is “100 percent effective in preventing human rabies cases.”
It advises residents to stay away from any animal acting aggressively or out of character, and to call local animal control officer to the scene to assess the situation and capture the animal if necessary. Vaccinating dogs and cats is imperative.
The “new” trap — which is a modified leghold trap prohibited by the Legislature in 1984 — isn’t “controlling” anything. The modified traps have been around for years; the game council waited through several administrations until hunter-friendly Gov. Chris Christie rubberstamped the regulation.
Rabies fear-mongering is a retread of fur industry lobbying tactics in 1984, when the Centers for Disease Control, the National Academy of Sciences and others decisively quashed the trade’s inaccurate claims; there was no evidence that trapping reduced rabies reservoirs or rabies incidence.
Trappers trap for recreation or fur. Apologists should stop manufacturing excuses. The nature and cause of the mid-Atlantic and northeastern outbreak are common knowledge in the wildlife field; the alliance’s statements are irresponsible and should stand publicly corrected.
Susan Russell, of Fair Haven in Monmouth County, is wildlife policy director of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey.