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Spike in rabies cases taxes animal control
Hall confirms this year's 26th incident
David Jones of Hall County Animal Control tries to coax a stray dog from behind a chair. Animal control was called out to pick up the dog after it appeared in a neighborhood along Martin Luther Jr. Boulevard recently. - photo by Tom Reed


Hear Mike Ledford, director of Hall County Animal Control, talk about rabies response.
Wednesday morning, officers with Hall County Animal Control began performing a ritual for the 26th time this year.

After a raccoon captured last Friday in the Six Gun Drive area of East Hall turned out to be carrying rabies, officers had to visit every house within a half-mile radius. They warned residents that they should get their pets vaccinated, and that they should be on the lookout for any wild animals behaving strangely.

Mike Ledford, director of Hall County Animal Control, said no state or local law requires his agency to do the door-to-door canvassing.

"It’s just been part of our standard operating procedure," he said. "But that was based on having maybe four (rabies) cases a year."

In the first half of 2008, there have already been 26 confirmed cases of rabies. This means animal control officers have had to divert much of their energy to responding to rabies cases during a time of the year when they’ve got enough work to do.

"We have a significant spike in calls in summer," Ledford said. "People are outdoors more, coming into contact with animals."

There are also more strays to be rounded up, since unwanted litters of puppies and kittens tend to be born in the spring.

But at least the animal control department is fully staffed now, with six officers to cover the county. The sixth position had been vacant for a while and was just filled last month.

"We’re getting by with what we’ve got," said Ledford. "If we had more folks, we could certainly find plenty for them to do."

An animal control officer is more than merely a "dogcatcher." They have to handle bite cases, cruelty cases, almost any type of incident involving an animal.

"These officers get involved in pretty much the same situations as a law enforcement officer, such as domestic disputes," said Ledford.

In those situations, they have to call for police backup, because they are not certified peace officers. They can write a citation, but cannot arrest a person.

They also work only during the daytime, Monday through Friday. After hours, animal complaints are referred to Hall County Dispatch, which can send out a sheriff’s deputy to assess the problem. An animal control officer is on call for them 24 hours a day if needed.

"We will do the first response and preliminary investigation," said Maj. Jeff Strickland, spokesman for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.

Since the species most likely to transmit rabies — raccoons and skunks — are nocturnal, deputies are often the first people called to the scene of a suspected rabies case.

"If there is a need for animal control, we try to contain the animal until they arrive," said Strickland. "If an animal poses an immediate danger to the public, we will take appropriate action (by shooting it)."

Ledford said when a wild animal comes into contact with a dog, the dog has often already killed it by the time animal control officers arrive. If the animal is still alive, officers trap it and then euthanize it.

When rabies is suspected, the head of the animal must be removed and sent to the Georgia Public Health Lab in Decatur. That’s because the rabies virus is found in brain tissue, and it’s easier to ship a skull than an entire animal.

Test results usually come back within two business days. Because the incident on Six Gun Drive occurred on a Friday, the raccoon’s brain wasn’t shipped until Monday. It was confirmed positive for rabies on Wednesday morning.

Officers then converged on the neighborhood to start notifying residents. Ledford said the process usually takes a couple of hours, depending on the density of the human population in the area.

"We either talk to each person or leave a notice on their door," Ledford said.

If the rate of rabies cases continues to be high, he said animal control may have to rethink this policy.

"We are considering some other options," he said. "But we don’t want something to happen (such as someone getting bitten by a rabid animal) because we didn’t go door to door. Public safety is a priority for us."

Officers already spend a considerable amount of time responding to bite cases — not from rabid raccoons but just ordinary dogs and cats.

In May, animal control handled 70 cases in which people were either bitten or scratched, and 45 animals were placed in quarantine because they were not current on their rabies vaccinations. Thirty of those were housed at the Humane Society of Hall County; the others were boarded at a vet or kept caged at the owner’s home.

"This year, we’ve had quite a few animals quarantined because of rabies cases," said humane society president Rick Aiken. "In past years, we had almost none. We do not have enough quarantine space.

"If we’re going to continue to have this amount of cases, we’re going to have to look at our options. Local vets can’t loan out space to us."

It helps that the humane society has held a number of extra rabies vaccination clinics this year, all of which have been well attended.

Ledford said that’s half the battle. "If everybody followed county ordinances, kept their pets vaccinated and kept them confined, it would make our jobs easier," he said.

But many dogs and cats in Hall County are just running around loose and don’t have owners, so there’s no one to whom officers can issue a citation. All they can do is try to capture nuisance strays and take them to the animal shelter, where most end up being euthanized.

Aiken said he appreciates the hard work animal control officers do. "Animal control is definitely strapped," he said. "They’ve got a tough, tough job. I feel for them."