Animal Control sees increase in rabies infections

From pigs, to goats, to ferrets, to birds, rabbits, and horses, Officer Robert Napoleon, of the Wilton Animal Control department, has seen it all during a long career.

A native son, Mr. Napoleon is one of two employees of Animal Control, which falls under the direction of the police department. His part-time assistant is Officer Chris Muir, also a Wilton native.

Mr. Napoleon, who has been an officer in Wilton since 1984, said the Animal Control department is a highly specific necessity.

“We enforce all the laws applicable to domestic animals,” he said. “There are many responsible pet owners in this town, but there are also some irresponsible pet owners. If there weren’t, maybe the town wouldn’t need animal control.”

Another pivotal part of the department’s job, he said, was handling animals suspected of carrying the rabies virus. Over the past few months, Mr. Napoleon said, the department has seen a noticeable increase in the number of animals who tested positive for the rabies virus. Two raccoons and a bat have already been “destroyed” by the department after they were determined to have rabies. In all of 2012, one raccoon tested positive for rabies in Wilton, according to the state Department of Health. In 2011, there were none.

“Rabies is a viral disease that travels up the nerve endings into the spinal cord, and eventually reaches the brain, where it is emitted in an animal’s saliva,” Mr. Napoleon said. Though animals with rabies don’t actually foam at the mouth, the animal control officer said with a laugh that his department tends “to ask people: ‘Does the animal seem drunk?’ We look for neurological conditions like uncoordinated walking, tremors, or shaking.”

Though many assume any animal scavenging for food during the day is suspected of having rabies, Mr. Napoleon said that logic does not apply to all animals.

“Raccoons do hunt for food during the day,” he said. “Skunks are a different story, as they are almost never out during the day. There is almost always a problem when a skunk is out during the day, whether or not it is rabies.”

It may surprise many, the animal control officer said, that his department is not tasked with “cleaning the roads or picking up deer.” Animal control officers will pick up domestic animals near roadways, but only to notify the pets’ owners, he said.

If residents see an animal with signs of rabies, or suspect their pet has been exposed to a wild animal with rabies, they should call the Animal Control department immediately. Those who are bitten by a wild animal should call their doctor immediately.

Pet behavior

One of the most important tasks of the department is to investigate pet-involved injuries, like dog bites.

“I’ve often heard people say, ‘oh, my dog would never bite,’” Mr. Napoleon said. “I like to ask them, ‘does your dog have teeth?’ Any dog can bite. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad dog, but any dog with teeth can bite.”

While some dog-bite investigations involve relatively minor injuries, some do create real problems. Dogs are the property of their owners, who can be held civilly liable for any damage to persons or property by their pets.

Making sure pet owners and their animals can coexist with other Wilton residents in a safe way, Mr. Napoleon said, is the greatest goal of the department.

“You really need to have basic respect for your fellow man” as a pet owner, he said. “Many people love animals, but there are also some who are simply afraid of them. You need to have respect for everyone.”

In order to maintain this level of respect, one should follow all state and local laws governing pets. Dogs and leash laws, he said, are especially important.

“We want to make sure that everyone is properly controlling their pets,” he said, “and not allowing them to roam free. When in public, be respectful.”

On any state-owned property, regardless of a specific leash law, all dogs must be kept “in control” by their owners. Though there is no standard protocol defining “in control,” Mr. Napoleon gave a few anecdotes of an “out of control” dog.

“If your dog is 150 feet away down a path, or is out of your sight, or is not by your side,” it cannot be considered in control.

The animal control officer also noted that he and his assistant do conduct regular patrols of areas where animals are common, like Merwin Meadows, playing fields, and Schenck’s Island.

In addition, Animal Control regulates dog licenses and rabies vaccine paperwork, though actual vaccinations must be conducted by a licensed veterinarian, Mr. Napoleon said.

“Having an out-of-date rabies vaccination puts a large burden on a pet owner,” Mr. Napoleon said, as the state has increased protocols for animals who are suspected to have been exposed. Dogs, cats or ferrets that bite a person will be quarantined to watch for signs of rabies.

Information: 203-563-0150.