NORTH SALEM, N.Y.--What had been a fun romp in the yard took a quick 180 on Saturday, Sept. 16, when Sharon Alberti Ballard’s dogs were suddenly attacked by a rabid fox.
Ballard’s two German shorthair pointers, Maggie Mae, 8, and Penny Lane, 1, were (ironically, as Ballard would later point out) playing tug of war with some stuffed animals, one of which was a fox, at the time of the attack. Their lawn was just one of many stops the fox made that day on its mad rampage through the area before it was captured in a Rubbermaid container by Ballard’s neighbor.
The incident as told by Ballard, a speech pathologist at H.H. Wells Middle School in Brewster, began when the fox bolted from the side of the house, blindsiding the dogs and biting them. Penny Lane mistook the attacker for a new playmate, Ballard said, and submissively rolled on her back.The fox then bit Penny Lane’s neck and face.
With nothing at her disposal to ward off the fox, Ballard said she screamed at it while simultaneously calling the dogs to “come.”
“My only weapon was my mouth,” she said.
She walked backward toward her front door, about 75 feet, in order to grab a walking cane that was near the front door, all while maintaining her view of the fox. Her neighbor, Bill Butler, heard her screams from his garage next door and came to see what was going on. The fox ran away upon Butler’s arrival.
Ballard got her pets, who were both bleeding, to safety inside and immediately took them to Brewster Veterinary Hospital, where the dogs received booster rabies shots.
Meanwhile, Butler had returned to his garage. While looking for screws, he felt something on the back of his leg. Thinking a tool had fallen, he looked back to see the fox tearing into the heel of his sneaker, Ballard said.
“Kicking it aside, the fox ran into his house,” Ballard said.
He called the police, but they were next door at yet another neighbor’s home, the Gavishes, responding to a report that a fox had ripped a screen door off of its hinges. Elan Gavish posted a video on Facebook of the fox at work. It was recorded moments before the fox moved on to Ballard’s yard.
The fox was eventually trapped by Butler in a Rubbermaid container and taken away by officials to be sent to Albany for testing. While the pets were treated for rabies, the owners were advised to hold off until the fox was confirmed to have the virus. It did. Butler, who discovered a cut on the back of his leg the next day, and Ballard, who came into contact with the fox’s saliva via her pets, both qualified for treatment.
Ballard began the four-series rabies shot treatment on Sept. 22. The serum is thick, she said, and the large needle caused bruising. But, she said, “The alternative of not having the vaccine is by far [worse]—fatal—so I am again grateful to be receiving the shots.”
While Ballard and Butler were doing well, Maggie May, the oldest of Ballard’s dogs, was having a rougher go.
Due to a pre-existing medical condition, Ballard was advised not to give the dog her three-year rabies booster shot in 2016 as an unusually high level of antibodies were already in her system. Instead, she had to be quarantined for 45 days. Luckily, Ballard said, Penny Lane continues “to want to play with everyone,” and Maggie May has a buddy to keep her company until her “release” on Halloween.
The fox did not survive, because he was past the point of treatment, officials said.
Although no official sightings have been reported to the Department of Health since, several neighbors said on Balllard’s Facebook page that they had seen the same fox in barns or garages earlier that weekend.
Ballard had written a Facebook post Sept. 18, warning her neighbors about her encounter with the fox. The post, which featured a cell phone video of the dogs playing just moments before the attack, received a lot of engagement from strangers and neighbors alike. To date, it has been shared 1,485 times and has acquired 726 reactions and 361 comments.
“I received hundreds of well-wishes from friends and strangers from all over the country,” Ballard said. “I am grateful that it was shared, as rabies is fatal and the need to keep our pets vaccinated in a timely manner is extremely important. Had my dogs not been vaccinated in a timely manner, they would have been quarantined for 180 days by New York State law, in a cage.”
Michael Condon, who works in the Animal Vector Unit for the Westchester County Department of Health, said the fox had demonstrated tell-tale hallmarks of the fatal disease.
A rabid animal may become either abnormally aggressive or unusually tame. It may lose fear of people and become excited and irritable, or it may appear passive and lethargic. Staggering and frothing at the mouth are sometimes noted.
Other neurological symptoms such as biting at imaginary attackers or walking in circles are also indicators of the disease, Condon said.
Animals most commonly infected are raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. However, domestic animals such as cats and dogs are also at risk because they can contract rabies from wild or stray animals.
“That’s why we always want everybody’s pets to be up to date with their rabies vaccinations,” Condon said.
While direct contact with the animal is the primary method for a human to contract the virus, secondary exposure through mucous membranes can put a person at risk as well, Condon said.
“Say your dog was attacked by a rabid animal and then you handled it with bare hands and immediately touched your eyes, nose and mouth afterward,” he hypothesized. “It’s probably a very low actual risk, but there is potential.”
If you or a pet is bitten, Condon said to wash the wound immediately with soap and warm water and to contact the health department.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses, including fever, headaches and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia (fear of water). People must be treated before the onset of symptoms, which can take anywhere from nine days to three weeks to develop.
While human fatalities due to the virus have not occurred in many years, Condon said that this year, there have been 10 animals that tested positive for rabies in Westchester. Two foxes also tested positive in Putnam County in August, Condon said.
Earlier incidents this year caused some residents to examine the town’s policies when it comes to collecting the animals, Supervisor Warren Lucas said.
In August, residents reported sightings of skunks exhibiting unusual behavior. They called the North Salem Police Department, which reportedly told them they were not equipped to catch the skunks or shoot them, and left the scene after 45 minutes.
“So where does that leave a homeowner on the weekend with a rabies problem? And why shouldn’t the town, county or state do something about it except tell you that it’s your responsibility to trap them?” asked resident John OLoughlin.
Lucas said the police are a logical resource to call if one animal is immediately impacting resident safety, as seen during the incidents that occurred on Sept. 16.
There also are resources outlined on the county’s website that will trap animals (http://health.westchestergov.com/rabies/trappers).
For an animal to be tested directly for rabies, it has to be caught, Condon said. Since treatment for rabies is time-sensitive, quickly reporting such incidents is crucial.
The Westchester County Department of Health issued a news release Sept. 20 asking anyone who had come into contact with the fox to call the department. All animal bites or contacts with animals suspected of having rabies must be reported to the Westchester County Health Department at 914-813-5000. After regular business hours, callers should follow instructions in the recorded message for reporting public health emergencies.
The health department offers free rabies vaccine clinics for pets throughout the year. The next free rabies vaccination clinic will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 29, at the Humane Society of Westchester, 70 Portman Road, New Rochelle. No appointment is necessary.