Six raccoons have been captured and euthanized after contracting rabies, all on the property of Zoo Miami, a South Miami-Dade mainstay and one of the county’s top tourist attractions.
The zoo, located off Southwest 152nd Street and 124th Avenue, is home to an exotic array of wild animals accumulated from around the world. Almost a million people visit it each year.
Communications Director Ron Magill said the zoo’s 3,000 animals on its 740 acres have all received rabies vaccinations and also have been checked since the initial discovery of a rabid raccoon on May 15. None of them have tested positive for the deadly virus.
Though rabies findings in the wild are not that unusual, it can become worrisome when found in clusters. The most recent finding was two weeks ago.
“This is not a panic,” Magill said. “But it’s certainly a concern of ours.”
The zoo has posted dozens of signs warning visitors of the outbreak. And visitors are being warned not to feed any of the animals that scurry around the zoo property that aren’t caged, like raccoons, feral cats, even coyotes that roam the property at night. Only one of the six rabid raccoons has been found in an area on the massive property that is accessible to the public.
The Florida Department of Health often issues a rabies alert when the disease is discovered. If no other cases are discovered in the next 60 days, the alert is cleared. The state health department extended its warning another 60 days with the most recent finding on Sept. 8. The warning is for the area of Southwest 152nd and 187th streets between 117th and 137th avenues.
Rabies is a nervous-system disease that can be fatal to humans and most warm-blooded animals. It’s transmitted through bodily fluids, so cuts and scratches can be a danger. The health department is warning residents to keep their pets vaccinated.
Magill said that since the initial finding in May, Zoo Miami has captured and tested more than 30 raccoons. The zoo, he said, routinely traps animals because of the possibility of parasite transmission with the animals that make Zoo Miami such an attraction.
He warned visitors that though public perception of a rabid animal is delirium and frothing at the mouth, that’s only one of many symptoms. Animals with rabies can act lethargic. Or, night predators like raccoons can be seen scrambling around during the hot daytime hours.
Zoo Miami, Magill said, will continue to trap and test until the state gives clearance after 60 days have passed from a rabies discovery. He’s concerned about Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park, a 240-acre park behind and south of the zoo that has campgrounds where people often leave food out for the animals that scurry about.
This is the first rabies outbreak for Zoo Miami since it was built in 1980.
The outbreak has roughly coincided with the cutting down of forest land just west of Zoo Miami, on controversial Pine Rockland property that was bulldozed to make way for a Walmart, an LA Fitness workout center and 450 apartments. Though the rabid raccoons haven’t been directly linked to the deforestation, veterinarians and animal experts say that when animals are placed under extreme stress, like the loss of a home, they can become more susceptible to disease.
Miami veterinarian John Yao said he can’t link the rabies discovery to the development, but he said raccoons are probably the most common carrier of the disease, which can live undercover in the immune system for years.
“You’re going to see more rabies when you see more raccoons,” Yao said. “And viral infections are usually because your immune system is stressed out.”