Wolf Song of Alaska News

Villagers Fear Rabies Outbreak

WOLVES:  Attack on sled dogs last week raises concern

James Halpin / Anchorage Daily News / November 2, 2007

Nearly 20 sled dogs and strays may have to be euthanized after at least one of several wolves that attacked animals in the Yukon River village of Marshall turned out to have rabies, village and state officials said Thursday.

Three sled dogs and three pups were killed by wolves last week before villagers chased the pack away, killing one wolf and injuring several others. The dead wolf, a 17-month-old female, tested positive for rabies Wednesday, said Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Cathie Harms.

Now, officials are worried the other wolves in the pack may have the fatal disease, which can cause aggressive and unpredictable behavior.

"There's a real possibility of a rabies outbreak," said Nick Andrew Jr., the tribal administrator for the Ohogamiut Traditional Council. "There are still wolves near the village. Our concern is the unknown: How many wolves are still in the pack and how many are rabid?"

Rabies travels through the nervous system and is spread primarily through saliva, so when wolves eat from a shared carcass the disease can spread, Harms said. The wolf that was shot was not "shedding" -- meaning it had the virus but was not contagious yet, Harms said.

"But if other wolves in the pack were rabid, they could have been in the shedding stage," she said. "The length of time between exposure and when they actually get the disease varies. It depends on where they were bitten and how much they got."

Three separate dog teams were attacked by the wolf pack last week, including a team belonging to musher Clem Kameroff. Two of his dogs were attacked, one severely and the other superficially.

The badly injured dog, a 10-year-old female, was his lead dog.

"I got rid of the one that was beaten up. We shot it," Kameroff said. "The one that got bitten I might have to get rid of too because it wasn't vaccinated." Some of his pups may also have been exposed.

The rest of Kameroff's approximately 18 dogs were in a fenced area and were not in danger of contracting the virus, he said.

Some of his dogs had been vaccinated in the past, Kameroff said. But others had not.

"There's a bunch of dogs that were not vaccinated," said Andrew, the tribal administrator. "That's the gray area we're dealing with."

Andrew said one man has 11 dogs that were bloodied during the wolves' attack, and the owner was not sure if they were immunized. Now all will likely have to be killed, a move Andrew called a significant inconvenience for a man who uses the dogs for subsistence and recreation.

The state Division of Public Health is recommending unvaccinated dogs that were bitten by wolves and exposed to the disease be euthanized. Exposed dogs that have been vaccinated in the past should be revaccinated and cordoned off for 45 days to be watched for symptoms, Harms said.

"The dog mushers that were attacked fenced in their dogs with fencing mesh," Andrew said. "Those measures have already been taken."

An unknown number of pets and stray dogs run loose in the village, and at least one joined the fray with the wolves and was injured, Andrew said. A group of men went out Thursday and "took care" of any roaming dogs to prevent any potential spread of rabies, Andrew said.

Dog carcasses are being burned to prevent other animals from eating them and possibly spreading the disease, he said.

"It sounds medieval, but it's all we have," Andrew said.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Office of Environmental Health is flying someone out today to administer free rabies shots to animals in Marshall, a largely subsistence village about 400 miles west of Anchorage.

No humans were injured in the attack, but state officials want the person who skinned the wolf to get tested for the deadly virus.

That man, David Andrew, likely will be tested, though he wore latex gloves and was careful when he skinned the animal and cut its head off to send for testing as officials requested, his brother Nick Andrew, the administrator, said.

Officials who performed the necropsy on the wolf were not exposed to the virus, Harms said.

Only 18 wolves have tested positive for rabies in Alaska since 1977, according to Fish and Game officials. A rash of rabid foxes and other animals in Western Alaska and on the North Slope since 2006 led health officials to push for dog vaccinations in several Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages this year.

It was not immediately clear if Marshall -- which has had similar, though not as severe, wolf problems in the past -- was included in that list.

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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