On April 17th, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) was contacted by two men who encountered a bear that appeared to be acting very erratically in Afton, Virginia, Albemarle County. The men were driving a small 4-wheel off-road utility vehicle on a large, secluded parcel of land, when a bear approached and began biting the vehicle's tire, and then attempted to enter the occupied vehicle. The men were able to exit the vehicle without injury and ultimately shot and killed the bear.
Because of this highly unusual behavior of the bear, following protocol, VDGIF law enforcement staff with the help of a local animal control officer removed the biological material necessary for submission to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) office in Charlottesville. Within 24 hours VDGIF was notified that the bear tested positive for the rabies virus. VDH officials are investigating this incident but it's believed the men involved did not come into contact with the virus and will not need post-exposure rabies vaccinations. In addition, this was a single incident that is exceedingly rare; and because bears are typically solitary animals, there is very little chance that other bears have been infected.
Rabies is rarely diagnosed in any species of bear and has never been detected in a Virginia black bear. Rabies was found previously in a single black bear killed in Maryland in 2007 and in several black bears in Canada. Rabies has also been reported in a single polar bear.
The rabies virus is transmitted from infected animals to humans by contact with the saliva or brain/spinal fluid of the infected animal. People usually become infected with rabies after being bitten by a rabid animal. If left untreated, rabies is fatal.
The Thomas Jefferson Health Department strongly advises that people take these steps to prevent families and pets from exposure to rabies:
• Vaccinate all cats, dogs and ferrets against rabies and keep them up to date
• Avoid contact with wild animals or stray cats and dogs
• Do not feed wild animals or stray cats and dogs
• Report stray animals to your local animal control agency
• Eliminate outdoor food sources around the home
• Keep pets confined to your property or walk them on a leash
While rabid animals may act aggressively, not all aggressive animals are rabid. Rabid animals may also be unusually friendly, may appear confused or disoriented, may vocalize abnormally, or be active at odd times of the day. It's important to remember not to approach any ill or sick appearing animals. Also always wear gloves when handling dead animals, and disinfect all implements used to dispose of a dead animal.