Your worst zoo-related nightmare shouldn’t be an escaped jungle cat or poisonous snake sneaking up on you. It’s a rabid groundhog stalking you and others around the premises.
Something similar (though probably less dramatic) happened at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore last Saturday, when staff caught a groundhog that “followed a zoo visitor” in the Druid Hill Park attraction, according to the recently renamed Maryland Department of Health. Yesterday, five days after the rodent’s capture, the state revealed the creature had rabies.
Zoo spokeswoman Jane Ballentine wrote in an email that while animals from outside the park often travel in and out of the grounds, they largely “stay in the heavily forested areas that are not within the public Zoo footprint (aka the developed exhibits, pathways, etc) during the day.”
Many are nocturnal and want to keep their distance from humans, she said. “Just as you wouldn’t see these animals if you were walking or riding your bike around Druid Hill Park, you shouldn’t see them here during the day…That is why this groundhog was unusual and needed to be caught. It was exhibiting very unusual behaviors, such as following people, which is not normal for a groundhog.”
The disease that some of us may associate with the terrifying canine behavior in Stephen King’s classic book and 1983 horror film “Cujo” is actually no joke. Transmitted by saliva, it can cause infected wild animals to act “docile or sociable” and domestic animals to become more aggressive, according to the state health department. Some animal symptoms include staggering, drooling or paralysis.
This rabid groundhog was among five caught and diagnosed so far this year. Officials say the state has also corralled more than 100 other rabid critters, including raccoons, bats and foxes.
Around 900 Maryland residents get preventive treatment for the disease each year after being exposed to rabid or potentially rabid animals, the state says.
The zoo is asking that anyone who came into physical contact with a groundhog there between June 24 and July 8 — the incubation window for the disease in this case, according to Ballentine — call the Maryland Department of Health for a risk assessment. The numbers are 410-767-5649 during business hours, and 410-795-7365 after business hours.
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