By Jessica Johnson, APV Chief Legislative Officer
Friday, Jan. 6, 2017
Karen Williams had just passed the 23-mile mark of a marathon organized in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Several runners had already scaled the hill in front of her and continued on their way to the finish line. But when Karen reached the top, she was suddenly confronted by a startled mother black bear with two cubs.Acting defensively, the mother bear charged Karen, causing serious but non-life threatening injuries. Karen first fought and then played dead, and eventually the bear left her alone and bolted with her cubs.
While being treated for her injuries in the hospital, Karen
shared with wildlife officials who interviewed her that she firmly believed the mother bear was not predatory or dangerous—that the bear was in her own habitat, and she was simply alarmed and protective of her cubs, as any animal would naturally be.
But state law, through a State Department of Health regulation, requires that any wild animal—with limited exception—that bites or scratches a humane be euthanized and tested for rabies. The rationale behind this policy is to protect and identify humans who may have been exposed to rabies and ensure proper treatment. The only scientifically approved test for rabies requires that the animal be euthanized and portions of the brain be sent to a laboratory.
Some species of animals, such as skunks or foxes, are known to have high rates of rabies infection and high risk of transmission to humans, and the interest of public health does seem to justify testing these animals.
But what about black bears?
Not a single black bear in New Mexico has ever been found to have contracted rabies.
So why did the Valles Caldera mother bear need to be tracked down, euthanized, and tested for rabies? If the risk of a black bear contracting or transmitting rabies is so low—and the patient, as Karen did, volunteered to undergo rabies treatment to protect her health, regardless of any test results from the animals—isn’t the same positive public health outcome achieved?
These are questions that have led Animal Protection Voters to begin working with Karen to reexamine New Mexico’s wildlife rabies laws and make sure they make sense. Certainly, no one wants to put people in danger of a rabies outbreak. But if we can protect people from rabies and at the same time avoid killing an animal with very low risk of transmitting rabies, then that’s a win-win situation we can all celebrate. Officials in some other states already take this approach.
Why care about one bear? Because every animal’s life counts, of course. But when you add in unsustainable hunting practices in New Mexico, the stakes for the species in our state are also at play.
Animal Protection Voters will continue to work wih Karen and state lawmakers on legislation that will establish parameters within which the appropriate agency officials must operate when treating a person for a wildlife bite or scratch—taking into account whether the animal’s behavior was defensive or predatory, the animal’s likelihood of transmitting rabies to a human, and the cost-savings of human rabies treatment versus capturing, killing, and testing animals.
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Content originally published in Making Tracks, Winter 2016. Read the entire issue here.