After years of research, experts in Ontario's ministry of natural resources have discovered something that has long been self-evident to fast-food promoters: burgers are more popular than hermetically sealed plastic bags. For years, ministry officials drove around in cars dropping plastic bags here and there in the woods as part of an experiment in developing an oral rabies vaccine. The hope was that foxes and skunks, the main rabies carriers, would nibble at the plastic and devour the little freeze-dried pellets tucked inside. But foxes showed little interest in gorging themselves on the bags, despite the addition of artificial flavoring. “It didn’t seem to work too well,” concedes Ian Watt, a senior resource technician who works on the project.
All that changed in 1975 when the ministry started hiding its drugs inside one-ounce hamburger patties and the foxes started co-operating. Now, with the ministry tossing spiked burgers out of airplanes—an estimated 20,000 are going to be air-dropped this fall—the fox is showing itself to be just as keen a junk-food addict as the next guy.
Officials are hoping the burger drop will eventually do something to cut back the 1,500 cases of rabid animals in Ontario each year—roughly 80 per cent ofa all cases in Canada. One stumbling block, though, may be the inscrutable nature of the skunk’s eating habits. While the fox’s hankering for burger's has been demonstrated—74 per cent of foxes ate the patties in the last ministry survey—only 56 per cent of skunks showed a weakness for ground chuck. It could be that skunks move around less and so encounter fewer burgers, suggests David Johnston, who heads the province’s rabies research unit.
Any solution to the rabies problem— which cost Ontario $7 million last year—will have to include a way of reaching the skunk. The disease is dramatically on the rise among skunks this year, and since the skunk is often found in urban areas, it is more likely to pass the virus on to humans. Although no human has developed rabies in Ontario in the past decade, last year alone nearly 1,300 people underwent the unpleasant preventative treatment—with 21 needles in the stomach—after coming into contact with rabid animals.
Even if officials discover the skunk has a weakness for, say, lobster, it will be at least a year before the air-drop program has any beneficial effects. So far, it’s still in the experimental stage, awaiting the completion of work on an oral vaccine. The drug that foxes are gobbling up in their burgers is only tetracycline, a common antibiotic that does nothing to prevent rabies. All it does is allow the ministry to see if the system could work. Trappers who catch animals within the ministry’s 200square-mile experimental zone have been handing foxes and skunks over to the ministry for examination. If an animal has eaten one of the tetracycline burgers, his teeth will have microscopically visible yellow lines from the drug.
The fox, at least, seems quite happy to play along with the $2.6-million pilot project, paid for out of provincial lottery funds. With hamburgers selling for more than a dollar at most restaurants, the dropping patties must truly seem like a gift from the gods.
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