There were no bugles, hounds, or riders in red coats, but the fox hunt that took place at the Southwood Mobile Home Park on Friday, January 31, was high stakes nonetheless for three people who now require rabies prevention treatment, and it didn’t end well for a fox, who was killed in cinematic fashion later that night.
The drama began in the early afternoon when a gray fox bit three adults in the Southwood neighborhood off Old Lynchburg Road and then fled. Victims summoned animal control, and an initial search for the animal came up empty, according to Albemarle County Animal Control Officer Sandra Urry. A second search was also fruitless. With no animal to test for the deadly viral infection, health department officials quickly recommended that the bite victims commence rabies treatment, a costly series of shots that, if administered before the onset of symptoms, are the only hope for survival.
While cases of rabies in humans are rare—only three people have contracted it in Virginia, according to Virginia Department of Health records—animals fall prey far more frequently.
In 2013, 13 animals, five of them foxes, tested positive for rabies in the Thomas Jefferson Health District, according to health department records. The actual figure is likely higher since the department only tests animals that are known to have bitten a human being or domestic animal, according to Michele Napper, rabies program coordinator for the district, which encompasses the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Nelson, Greene, and Louisa counties.
Signs of rabies infection in animals include hydrophobia (fear of water), and a loss of fear of natural predators, such as that seen when normally nocturnal or timid wild animals attack people in broad daylight. Ultimately, in both animals and humans, the illness is fatal, and the symptoms in humans that may precede coma and death include hydrophobia, involuntary vocalizations, hallucinations, and, in men, sustained erections known as priapism.
The cost of post-exposure rabies treatment is steep. The first shot, the Rabies Immunoglobulin (RIG) is given at the hospital and, according to UVA spokesperson McGregor McCance, costs between $4,500 and $9,000, depending on a person’s weight. A series of three or four rabies vaccines is then administered over the next month, and the health department charges $255 for each of these. From January 2012 to September 2013, 135 people in the health district received post exposure treatment, said Napper.
One animal that likely no longer poses a local rabies risk to humans is the Southwood fox.
After darkness fell on the night of the bites, according to Urry, a man was standing by his car in the Southwood neighborhood when a gray fox charged and bit his boot. Startled, the man grabbed a nearby towel and swung it at the attacking animal.
“The fox bit the towel and held on,” said Urry, who described the man’s desperate maneuver to avoid being bitten.
“He flung it into the roadway and a passing car ran the fox over,” she said.
So was it rabid? That can’t be answered, said Napper, since the dead fox was never tested.
“Because there was a break from the time the first incident took place to the time this fox was killed, we couldn’t be sure it was the same fox,” she said.