A black bear in coastal North Carolina tested positive for rabies this month, making it the first known case of the fatal disease in a bear in state history, wildlife officials said.
The year-old bear was lethargic and having trouble moving when Johnny Dale spotted the animal at his game feeder in Fairfield on Dec. 16 — and just a day later, Dale found the bear dead at the same location and called wildlife officials, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission said in a news release Friday.
It wasn’t obvious what had killed the bear in Hyde County, so wildlife staff did a necropsy and then sent the animal’s body to University of Georgia researchers for more testing. Researchers told the wildlife commission on Dec. 21 that the bear had tested positive for rabies, and that the deadly virus was the cause of death, the commission said.
“Rabies in wild black bears is extremely rare,” Colleen Olfenbuttel, the state wildlife commission’s black bear biologist, said in a statement. “It has been documented only four times in the lower 48 states since 1999.”
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Black bears are the only bears that call the East Coast home, and they roam in about 60 percent of North Carolina, according to the wildlife commission. There were roughly 17,000 bears in the state as of 2012.
Any mammal — humans included — can catch the deadly rabies virus. Rabies is “by far the most prevalent” animal-borne disease in North Carolina, according to the state health department.
“You can only get rabies by coming in direct contact with the saliva, tears, or brain/nervous tissue of an infected animal,” Olfenbuttel said.
Humans who come into contact with an animal they suspect could have the virus should get treated as quickly as possible: As soon as symptoms start to appear, rabies is nearly always deadly, according to Mayo Clinic.
The lethargy and trouble moving that the bear exhibited is the result of brain inflammation that the viruses causes, according to the commission. Rabies also leads to loss of balance, fever and nose and eye discharge.
As the disease gets worse, an animal’s head, eyelids, tongue and neck can begin to swell, and its mouth may begin to foam. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing and breathing, vomiting, self-mutilation, paralysis and aggression.
The wildlife commission urges anyone who spots a black bear that is dead or exhibiting those symptoms to call its helpline to report the bear at 866-318-2401 during weekday business hours, or 800-662-7137 on weekends.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission offers these recommendations for bear hunters:
“Do not handle or eat any animal that is acting abnormal or appears to be sick. Wear latex or rubber gloves when field dressing; never handle a dead animal with your bare hands. Minimize the handling of the brain and spinal cord. Do not allow pets around your field dressing area to prevent contact with saliva, blood and other tissues. Wash hands, boots and instruments thoroughly after field dressing is completed. If a deer or bear is commercially processed, request that animal be processed individually and without meat from other animals. Use proper cooking temperatures to ensure safe food.”