Roadkill and Rabies: Enough!

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, January 20th:

Orange County won the state championship in 2005, finished a close second behind Guilford County last year, and is already well on its way to another state championship this year.

I wish I was talking about football or SAT scores or something of that ilk. Unfortunately I'm talking about the county's relative standing in the number of rabies cases it has compared to the rest of the state.

It seems like every day when I open up the paper there's been another confirmed rabies case. Most of the time I don't bat much of an eye. The vast majority of the cases are way out in the county, and since I live near downtown Chapel Hill, don't affect me.

But I kind of reached my breaking point when one of 2007's first pair of cases was a rabid fox that attacked someone walking near UNC Hospitals. I walk around there all the time, and that could just as well have been me.

We also had a rabid beaver in Umstead Park last year, right across the street from where I live. He was running right after some folks picnicking in the park. One of them had the ingenuity to jump up on a table and beat the heck out of that thing with a stick. I'd like to hire that fast thinker as my bodyguard because there's no way I would have had the guts and wherewithal to do that. My sense is that few other people would either.

I want to preface by saying that it could well be the case that Orange County does a better job of reporting its rabies incidents to the state than other counties do, and that's a part of the reason for its frontrunner status.

Still, there's no reason I can see that we should have more cases than virtually anywhere else in the state, including counties that both cover a much larger area and are on balance much more rural.

I think it's time for the county commissioners to put some pressure on their staff to figure out why we have such a rabies problem, and what can be done about it.

I don't want to have to move with trepidation every time I see an animal acting weirdly when I'm walking around town.

We have outstanding folks working for the county, and I'm confident that if told to find a solution they will be able to come up with some steps toward resolving the problem. There's lots of thing that Orange County leads the state in, and almost all of them are good. By tackling the rabies problem I hope we can get rid of the bad one.

As long as we're on the topic of public health issues, I'd like to see Chapel Hill look at how it can do a better job of cleaning up roadkill.

One day in October I was on the phone with a Town Council member as I stepped in a dead squirrel right on the sidewalk on Cameron Avenue.

As grossed out as I was by the experience, it had long struck me as inevitable. There is a real problem with roadkill being allowed to sit on the sidewalk for days without being cleaned up. I suppose I could call and report every time I see it, but the onus should be more on the town than individual citizens to ensure that's being taken care of.

The most disgusting piece of fallout from this problem I've ever seen happened one day last summer when I saw a dead squirrel while walking downtown. I made a point of walking back home on the other side of the street -- and I was sure glad I did when I saw a raccoon eating it for dinner!

That's a site I could live without seeing ever again. Needless to say I didn't have much of a dinner that evening.

I'm sure folks are doing their jobs, but I'm equally sure that I've never been in any other community that seemed to have dead animals sprawled across the sidewalk with such frequency. There must be some room for improvement in how we dispose of roadkill, and I'd like to see it made. Chapel Hill's town government is outstanding at virtually everything it does, and this is one more thing to add to the list.

Roadkill and rabies. These are two of the problems that have been bothering me of late in an otherwise outstanding community. Let's hope our elected leaders and the great staffs they oversee can do something about them.



A lot of people I talked to about this column thought I was joking, but I am dead serious! Doesn't anyone else think it's absurd we have more rabies than anywhere else in the state?

On another note, I want to give a shameless plug to the NC Sierra Club blog I promised here a couple months ago. We are up and running at


If I had to guess I would say that the incidence of rabies is no higher here than elsewhere in NC. After all, if you're out in the middle of nowhere and a fox decides to run around acting crazy, who's going to report it. On the other hand, a crazy fox in downtown Chapel Hill is really big news even if it isn't part of the downtown revitalization project.

Your "grossed out" experiences don't affect me particularly. With two labrador-mix dogs who have the run of our heavily-wooded backyard, I'm pretty used to having our dogs occasionally show up with a "prize" that they have managed to catch (or find). You can imagine my wife's surprise when one jumped up on the bed and proudly presented her with the mouse she had found. There are many aspects to nature, some more pleasant than others. Unfortunately, the relationships between prey and predators are not usually among those.

We had a similar experience one morning when one of our cats jumped up on the bed with a "prize" for us. The problem was that the mouse hadn't given up the ghost quite yet. It ran off the instant our cat let it go.

I found it two days later hiding the in the closet where we store the bird seed. I think it ate its weight in sunflower seeds before I caught it and released it in the woods nearby. It has been two years and our cat still rushes in to look for that mouse every time I open that closet door.

Tom, I also share your concern about rabies.

No, I don't think we can explain away our problem by saying that cases are underreported in other parts of the state.

I lived for several years in large, rural Swain County (comprised mostly of national forest and national park in the far southwest corner of the state), and while there, I lived on several wooded acres in an area teeming with raccoons, coyotes, and bears. Plus I had three dogs who ran free outside most of the day. And I knew lots of folks with lots of dogs, and I was friends with folks who ran the non-profit no-kill animal shelter. And, because of our menagerie, we went to the vet's regularly, sometimes because one of my animals had tangled with a raccoon.

This is also an area that, while rural, has tons of people in the woods all the time--hunters and their dogs, hikers, paddlers, campers, mountain bikers, and more.

And in all those years, I never once heard even the suggestion of rabies.

The local rabies situation was shocking to me when I moved here. I'm a lot more worried about rabies at Wilson Park than I was anywhere in Swain County.

While I am accepting that my cats will sometimes leave me "gifts" in varying degrees of eaten, dead and dying (and these are indoor only cats), the deer carcasses lining 54 disturbs me.
It's worth mentioning, as we develop more of the green spaces in town, the urban deer are going to be out on the road - dead and alive a lot more often. Hopefully Tom's column will draw attention to the need to develop a better plan for dealing with the increasing roadkill.

Dead squirrels on the sidewalk. So sorry. I have the same kind of reaction to the sight of flayed pieces of animal carcass lying around in the supermarket. I think it's called the meat counter ...

It emerges we may be killing ourselves in more ways than we thought with our meat-obsessed culture. Non-vegan readers among us (I include myself as a lacto-ovo-pescivore) might like to reflect on a new reason to reconsider our animal product consumption habits: the report "Livestock's Long Shadow" from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which tells us that our commoditized livestock industry is the biggest single contributor to global heating worldwide - beyond even transportation and building energy use. Who knew? Apparently cow farts and hog waste are worse even than SUV's. Forget the Prius. Dump the meat.

Effective wildlife corridors - on large & small scales - would help with a lot of the highway death.

I dunno that deer should really count as wildlife. I mean, pigeons and rats aren't usually counted among such desirables, so why should deer? Critter-proof garbage cans and composting heaps covered in netting might be an easier way to cut down on the roadkill at least a little bit -- certainly easier and less of a burden than the alternatives. Though, extending hunting season and kill limits (if we have them, I've never hunted deer in the area) could also be a more humane option than just sweeping the food supply out from under them.

Who knows about the rabies though. Orange County is one of the few areas where it's common for horses and even cattle to get rabies shots. That's saying something because I don't think even rabid animals typically try to maul something 50 times their size and 500 times their body weight.


You don't have to be mauled to get rabies from an infected animal. Even the saliva can carry the virus so a larger animal could simply come into contact with material that the rabid animal had contact with and become infected. In such a case the cost of a rabies vaccine shot looks like a reasonable investment.


I think the idea of more wildlife corridors might touch upon the reason for more reported cases of rabies in Orange County. I'm still not sure that our wildlife are any more rabid than elsewhere in the state but the large amount of development in our county may be squeezing more wildlife into smaller and smaller areas. That in itself could contibute to a higher rate of rabies infections since an infected animal would have a greater chance of passing the virus on if there are more animals per acre.

I though the increase in deer road kill this time of year was due to hunting season and the animals being stirred up and compelled to run fast and far. At least that's what I'd do if someone was chasing me with a gun.

As for rabies: it's true that it's easily transmitted. If your dog, for example, kills an animal with rabies, and you've handled the dog, you can catch it through their saliva. And that means really nasty terrible rabies shots.

The deer ARE stirred up--but I think the increase in roadkill in the late fall/early winter has more to do with rutting season than hunting season. I don't think there's that much hunting going on in southern Orange County.

A number of years ago we had a racoon in our yard that was obviously diseased. I called animal control, and by the time they got to it, it was dead. I asked if AC was going to test it for rabies, and the AC officer asked if any person or pet had come into contact with the animal. I told the officer that, to my knowledge, they had not. Officer told me animals were only tested if there was a KNOWN possibility of transmission. Stands to reason that densely populated areas will have a higher incidence of potential transmission than sparsely populated areas.

With regard to roadkill, no one has yet mentioned drivers SLOWING DOWN and respecting the speed limits. Our street is a 25 MPH road and I routinely see motorists zipping along at nearly 40 MPH. It doesn't surprise me that there are scattered small animals and the occasional deer brought down by such behavior. Consider if it were a small child...would you try to avoid it then?

I have never seen a deer eating out of a garbage can.
The ones in my yard aren't even interested in the compost. Mostly they eat grass and clover and unfortunately sunflowers, which we'll be caging this year just like the tomatoes. Live and learn.

Even rurally when habitats near towns are destroyed there can be problems with wildlife. My hometown is the size of Southern Village and the biggest town in the county. When a large woods on the edge of town was clear cut for a large apartment complex, deer began to appear on Main Street, causing property damage (and deer damage.) Certainly there was plenty of countryside for them, but they don't read maps.

The Horace Williams tract is full of a deer. Just take a drive through Windsor Circle some night. And I have yet to hear anyone talk about a plan to deal with that.

Mark, could you say more about wildlife corridors ?

I'm no expert and the link below points out some of the complexities of making wildlife corridors.

It seems like another case of humans destined to fall short of replicating natural systems, but we could certainly do way better. It would cost money and it's very predictable that many will complain about taking care of animals and ignoring the needs of society.

If we were to put some effort into it (and I believe that the Bolin Creek effort is certainly an example of good work in this area), we would link natural areas, provide tunnels or overpasses at roads for wildlife, build fences etc. I live near the Haw River and it functions as a wildlife corridor in many stretches. Rivers and creeks seem like great places to focus on.

Here's another way of looking at roadkill - those Brits!

Deer population has grown. It is not due to the lost of green space or lack of wildlife corridors. I have lived in the southwest Orange county for 22 + years. I have seen the deer numbers grow from an occasion siting to herds running and grazing in the fields by my house daily. Ask any farmer if the population has grown in the last 10 years and the answer is yes. There are farmers in my area who have permits to shoot deer out of season and without limits. Deer have very few if any predators to control them.

Every car I have own in the last 22 years has hit a deer at some time. There was a recent report that cars kill more deers than hunters. I can remember not seeing any deer on the interstates highways but now they are grazing on the shoulder some 5 to 6 feet away as cars and truck are going by at 70 mph.

1. rabies: yes, a rabid raccoon attacked a cow in Hillsborough,
so a rabid animal will attack ANYthing ANY size ANY time.
2. rabies: why Orange County? easy....more vectors for
transmission. more people to report it. more attention
from blogs/media. bottom line: it's not how many cases,
but how many are reported AND confirmed.
3. roadkill: dodging critters on highways is more deadly
to human drivers than hitting the animals. more
roadkill means somebody lived another day.
4. deer: deer don't eat OUT of a garbage can. they
turn it over and eat the spillage. bucks in rut charge
and hit them (at least once, until they learn), especially
the metal ones. why? no clue.
5. deer: deer have "crossed over" from nuisance into
the Pest or Varmit zone. just like mice or roaches
in your house, deer have become the "outdoor mice".
deer carry ticks and their diseases, deer are most
closely related to pig diseases are common,
and deer/car collisions are more common in Orange
County than pedestrian "hits".
and i'm old enough to remember when just seeing a
deer anywhere in the county was the talk of the town.
next: geese.

I've long conteneded that the only predator of deer LEFT in OC is the motorized vehicle. Unless we release some timberwolves...

James Morgan has an excellent point. The meat section of Harris Teeter grosses me out much more than any roadkill ever could. Pigs have the intelligence of a human toddler and are smarter than dogs, and they're killed in North Carolina like they mean nothing.

I think that's a much bigger problem than a few rabies cases.

George C brought up an important point---"the large amount of development in our county may be squeezing more wildlife into smaller and smaller areas. That in itself could contribute to a higher rate of rabies infections since an infected animal would have a greater chance of passing the virus on if there are more animals per acre."

This is true and there are plenty of research articles on the internet saying the exact same thing if anyone wants to read more. In addition more development and less natural areas also means less food and clean water for wildlife which weakens them, leaving them prone to infections and disease.

Also the retention ponds built in our area are not adhering to best practices--the stormwater ponds are not just suppose to capture stormwater runoff but actively filter pollutants. This means they are supposed to be constructed with heavy plantings of trees, shrubs and natural wild grasses in the area leading to the stormwater pond and also surrounding the ponds so the plants can filter the pollutants---around here we dig a big hole in the ground, plant lawn grass (using fertilizer and other lawn treatments) and end up with what many (including real estate agents) very quietly refer to as little toxic biohazard ponds. You can google lots of research articles explaining how these poorly constructed stormwater ponds are so polluted they are harming birds and wildlife--and pose health hazards.

Mark Marcoplos's suggestion for wildlife corridors, especially near waterways, is a great idea--healthier wildlife, healthier ecosystem (wildlife is part of our ecosystem), less roadkill deaths.

Do I think we will actually do anything to help the wildlife? Nope. Constructing proper stormwater ponds costs more money for developers---and developers like lawn grass not natural areas. Constructing wildlife corridors might infringe on future high density development--so that one probably won't get off the ground.

And our local environmental groups have remained silent on the poorly constructed stormwater ponds and the need for wildlife corridors and more undeveloped natural areas and parks (like the current beautiful and actively used NATURAL Southern Community Park that is soon to be developed into soccer fields, parking lots, office buildings, etc.--Did anyone else notice the protest signs in this natural park were pulled down almost as fast as they went up?)

After all, Tom Jensen is a vocal and well-known activist who works for the Sierra Club---and instead of expressing concern for wildlife and the need for wildlife corridors, natural parks and properly constructed stormwater ponds to help protect our wildlife and keep them healthy---he has expressed his concern about being grossed out by dead wildlife and wants the town to remove them quickly.

Yes, even though small dead animals like squirrels serve as a food source for other animals (and could just be moved into a natural area where people would see them or step on them which is what I do when I spot one) we should collect them all and toss them into a landfill---a landfill in some other state since our landfill will soon be closed and we will be shipping our garbage out.

It seems to me that for all our concern about "the environment", we really don't seem to care much anymore about the wildlife that live in the environment with us--more and more wildlife is being portrayed as either a nuisance, carriers of disease or gross to look at when they die.

Wildlife has become a concept--not something you would actually want to live next to or co-exist with.

Years ago when I did wildlife rescue I used to run into this attitude mostly among wealthy conservatives who had moved to our area from cities in other states--now it seems the attitude has spread. . .even to those working for our local Sierra Club.

And like Gloria said, James Morgan has an excellent point about meat consumption:
The report, “Livestock's Long Shadow” from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, does state our commoditized livestock industry is the biggest single contributor to global heating worldwide - beyond even transportation and building energy use.

And, of course, livestock farms are a leading cause of polluted waterways as well --as Mark Marcoplos
can probably tell you.

So if becoming a vegetarian is out of the question, just cutting back on meat consumption and/or shopping for it at stores like Whole Foods could help the environment and maybe help end the animal cruelty that is inherent in corporate farming.

Oh, and BTW James and Gloria--if you're concerned about animal cruelty you may not be aware that the 6 billion dollar push for biowarfare defense research (compliments of the ever demented Bush) has resulted in a huge upsurge of animal experimentation----UNC and Duke are now engaged in this biowarfare defense research (more info on this can be found on my website).


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