BELFAST, Maine — An Appleton man shot a gray fox to death after the animal attacked him in his yard around noon Sunday.
Maine state authorities are testing the fox to determine if it was rabid, and even though the results were not available Monday, Heidi Blood, the animal control officer for the town, said she had a “sneaky suspicion” that the test will come back positive.
“They’re opportunistic animals, but certainly, taking on a person is not normal behavior for them,” she said of foxes.
The fox had been seen hanging around the neighborhood before it attacked, according to Donald Burke of Appleton, who also was attacked — but not bitten — on Sunday.
“No one had a clue it would turn on people,” he said.
But when Burke went for a walk on Appleton Ridge with his black Labrador retriever, Bella, they were startled when they came across the fox behind a stone wall. The dog went after it, and the fox turned on the dog and then came after the man.
“It grabbed my pant leg. I kicked it, then the fox ran away,” he said. “It happened so quick.”
Burke then alerted the neighboring family.
“I said, ‘Wait till you hear what just happened,’ and the girl started pointing,” Burke said. “The fox was in the dooryard, about 30 feet from the house. I said, ‘That’s the fox that attacked me.’”
The neighbor went to get a gun and the fox went after him, too. The man tripped over the fox and they ended up on the ground together, and the man was bitten on the leg before he could kill the animal.
The fox was fully grown, Burke said. He estimated it weighed at least 20 pounds. He credits his dog with helping him warn the neighborhood about the fox.
“She was protecting me,” Burke said. “If she hadn’t made me go for a walk, we wouldn’t have been aware that the fox was out there, and the neighbors could have just come home [to the fox]. Bella is going to be treated like a queen from now on.”
Rabies has been on the minds of Mainers over the past couple of years, with high-profile cases making headlines in the state and beyond. Those include the Hope woman who drowned a rabid raccoon in a puddle in 2017, a Searsmont couple that used a shovel to kill another rabid raccoon that had attacked their puppy last year and a 95-year-old Brunswick man who beat a rabid fox to death with a board in June 2018.
Rabies, a disease that’s caused by a virus, affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause death if left untreated. It is spread when a rabid animal bites or scratches a person or animal, or if the animal’s saliva or neural tissue comes in contact with a person or animal’s mouth, nose or eyes, or enters a cut in the skin, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Maine, the most commonly infected animals are skunks, raccoons, bats and foxes, but it can infect any animal that has hair. In an unusual example, a river otter that bit a woman on a Rockland beach in 2018 tested positive for rabies.
To prevent exposure to rabies, authorities suggest avoiding contact with wild animals and make sure cats and dogs are up-to-date on rabies vaccination. That’s critical, according to Blood, the animal control officer.
“Err on the side of caution,” she said.