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Carol Golliher is accustomed to seeing wild animals in her rural Roane County neighborhood.
But when a suspicious-looking skunk waddled into her front yard last Thursday morning, she was concerned it might be carrying the deadly rabies virus.
“It would walk a little ways, and then it would fall over,” Golliher said.
Golliher’s home health nurse was the first one to encounter the struggling skunk.
“She said, ‘Do you know you’ve got a skunk in your front yard?’
“When a car went by, it would raise up to try and spray it but couldn’t. You would think it was dead, and then it would get up again. A skunk out in the middle of the day is a red flag.”
Her sister and brother-in-law, who were visiting from North Carolina, helped her begin a series of phone calls to six different public agencies but to no avail.
“We called (Roane County) animal control and got a recording; we called TWRA and they said they don’t do skunks; we called 911 and they said they had no idea,” Golliher said.
Frustrated, the Gallaher Road resident finally called the Roane County News and reached editor Terri Likens. Likens contacted the Nashville office of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and was referred to Erin Patrick, a rabies wildlife biologist covering the states of Tennessee and Kentucky for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We first saw the skunk at 9:15 a.m. and by 11:25 the newspaper called Erin Patrick and Knoxville wildlife services. It took them about 45 minutes to get here,” Golliher said. “It’s like nobody in Roane County knew what to do except the newspaper.”
Patrick captured the skunk with a catch pole and took it to her office, where it was euthanized.
“When I got there, he was kind of laying in the weeds on his side. He was alive but definitely lethargic. He didn’t even spray me,” she said.
Patrick said Thursday the animal had been tested and was negative for rabies.
“We haven’t had any cases of rabies this year, at all, in Roane County,” Patrick said.
Earlier in the week, she predicted as much.
“I don’t expect this one to test positive, but you never know. It could be a lot of different things. It could’ve been hit by a car, or it could’ve been poisoned.”
Working in conjunction with local health departments, Patrick’s office does random testing of foxes, coyotes, raccoons and skunks. She said no documented cases of raccoon-variant rabies, the type that wildlife biologists are most concerned about, have been found in Roane County.
“When it does come into an area, we see a huge spike in rabies cases,” Patrick said. “It’s happened in North Carolina before.”
Patrick said dead animals suspected of being rabid can be dropped off at the Roane County Animal Shelter, where it will be put into a freezer to be picked up every couple of weeks by wildlife biologists from the USDA.
Concerned citizens may contact Patrick at 588-0299.
Testing at her office is only for animals that have not been in contact with humans or domestic animals.
For cases in which people or pets have been exposed to a sick animal, Patrick said the local health department should be notified immediately.
Laura Conner, director of the Roane County Health Department, said concerned citizens should call animal control at 354-7387 if a domestic or wild animal is suspected to have rabies and is on the loose.
If there is no answer or it is after the close of normal business hours, callers should dial 354-8045 for non-emergency central dispatch.
In the event that someone has been bitten, scratched or might have come into contact with a rabid animal, they should immediately call Conner’s office at 354-1220.
Conner said the health department is not equipped to capture a live animal.
However, once an animal is dead, an environmentalist from the health department can come out and retrieve the carcass to send it off for laboratory testing.
“If there is any kind of human exposure at all, please let us know,” Conner said.