Rabid coyote attacks Johnston hiker; he strangles it

DEM 'strongly believes' there’s likely a connection between Scituate & Johnston attacks

Warwick Beacon ·

A rabid coyote attacked a hiker in Johnston. He strangled the sick animal.

According to Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira, shortly after noon Friday, a 58-year-old man was hiking in the wooded area north of Belfield Drive when he encountered the coyote.

“The hiker reported he was able to subdue the coyote by pinning it down by its neck, subsequently suffocating the coyote,” Vieira  said. “The male sustained a minor injury to his leg and was transported to RI Hospital. The RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) responded and took custody of the coyote carcass for testing in order to determine if it was infected with rabies.”

Unfortunately for the hiker, the tests came back positive, according to Evan LaCross, Programming Services Officer, Public Affairs for the Rhode Island DEM.

A dog walker was also attacked in neighboring Scituate the previous day. Scientists suspect both attacks likely involved the same animal.

“The animal from last Friday’s attack in Johnston was confirmed to be rabid from RIDOH’s laboratory testing,” LaCross said Monday afternoon. “DEM expected this result because the attacks were not normal behavior for coyotes.”

Should Residents Worry?


Are the pair of recent attacks the start of a trend?

“There are no trends regarding rabid coyote attacks because these incidents are extremely rare,” LaCross said. “Although coyotes can carry rabies, all mammals are susceptible to the rabies virus and coyotes have not historically been a frequent host of the virus in Rhode Island.”

Vieira can’t recall a similar incident in recent history.

“This is the first incident in Johnston of its kind that I’m aware of,” the police chief said Monday. “It’s always concerning when members of the community have encounters with wildlife such as this.”

He asked residents not to call Johnston Animal Control for coyote sightings.

“Our Animal Control Officers only handle issues involving domesticated animals,” Vieira said. “All wild animal calls, including those involving coyotes, are referred to the RI (DEM).”

Friday’s coyote attack victim called Johnston Police.

“DEM Environmental Police didn’t respond to the attack; Johnston Police did,” According to DEM’s Chief Public Affairs Officer Michael J. Healey. “DEM Police’s role was to take the carcass away and ultimately take the head of the animal to RIDOH (Rhode Island Department of Helath) Labs for rabies testing. Rabies is a brain disease. Thus, the animal’s head needs to be tested. Grisly, but that’s how it is.”

After receiving prompt treatment, the Johnston hiker should make a full recovery.

“Rabies infection is preventable with proper wound care and a post-exposure vaccine series,” according to LaCross. “Infected animals can exhibit a wide range of symptoms, from aggressiveness to aimless wandering, lethargy, weakness of the hind legs, and loss of awareness. Some animals show no symptoms and the only way to confirm rabies is through laboratory testing.”

Woodland Connection?


Two attacks in such a short period of time have DEM scientists playing forensic investigators.

“DEM strongly believes that there’s most likely a connection between the Scituate and Johnston attacks because although a single coyote attack on a human is rare, two attacks in two days four miles apart in bordering communities is much more than coincidental,” LaCross wrote. “To determine if it was the same rabid coyote involved in both incidents, the bite mark measurements could be compared to the injuries of the victims to have a probable answer. These measurements will be taken once the carcass is returned to DEM from RIDOH and we are working to gather more evidence that it is the same animal.”

DEM and DOH announced the rabies test results Monday, informing the public that they believe “a single coyote … was likely involved in (the) separate attacks on people Feb. 8 in Scituate and Feb. 9 in Johnston.”

The press release identified the hiker as a “a Johnston man who was bitten on the leg killed the coyote near Belfield Drive.”

“DEM Environmental Police Officers took the carcass for testing,” according to the press release. “RIDOH’s Rhode Island State Health Laboratories confirmed the rabies diagnosis. Rabies is a viral disease acquired from the bite or scratch of a rabid animal. Without a post-exposure vaccine series, virtually all cases are fatal. This post-exposure vaccination should be administered as soon as possible to anyone with a known or likely exposure to rabies, including those who received prior pre-exposure prophylaxis.”

State health experts urge “anyone who may have had contact with this animal” to call RIDOH’s Center for Acute Infectious Disease Epidemiology at 401-222-2577 (Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) or 401-276-8046 (after hours for treatment guidance).

“Along with my peers at RIDOH, I urge anyone in Scituate and Johnston who may have come into contact with the coyote to call the RIDOH Infectious Disease division,” said Rhode Island State Veterinarian Dr. Scott Marshall. “If pet owners in these two communities believe their pet has interacted with coyote, call or visit your veterinarian to make sure your pet’s rabies vaccination is current. Rabies is virtually always preventable with the vaccination. Animal owners also need to report the exposure to your local animal control officer.”

Advice for Hikers

LaCross reminds residents that coyotes are usually more afraid of humans than humans should be afraid of them.

“Coyotes are naturally shy animals, but unnatural interaction with humans, such as feeding, can cause them to become emboldened,” he said. “Coyote sightings are common all over Rhode Island and are not cause for concern; not all coyotes have learned bad behaviors. If the public encounters a coyote while outdoors, it will most likely continue on its way. If the coyote stops or is inquisitive, remain calm, make loud noises, try to look big and intimidating, and slowly back away.”

Residents can discourage coyotes from frequenting areas of human habitation by taking a few simple steps.

“Coexistence with the often-misunderstood coyote is possible with education and community effort,” LaCross explained. “Eastern coyotes have successfully established themselves throughout Rhode Island: in undeveloped, rural, suburban and urban areas alike and play an important ecological role managing rodent and small mammal populations.”

Pet-owners should be weary of leaving their domesticated animals outside, unattended. People also need to secure their trash.

“All pets should be kept indoors unless supervised,” LaCross wrote. “Coyote populations can also increase to unfavorable sizes with human-subsidized food resources, such as unsecured garbage cans and compost piles, or intentional feeding. We encourage residents to do a scan around their homes for anything that might attract coyotes, and remove it, particularly if anyone is feeding stray cats.”

If residents “witness a change in coyote behavior such as approaching people,” report the observation to DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement at 401-222-3070.

“All dogs, cats, and ferrets are required by state law to have current vaccination against rabies,” according to LaCross. “Vaccination of pets prevents them from contracting rabies and prevents people from becoming exposed to rabies through their pets.”

People should likely be more wary of attacks from the sky.

“Bats in Rhode Island are also known to be infected with the bat strain of rabies,” LaCross explained. “Bat rabies strains are highly transmissible to humans, and preventive vaccination is often recommended for exposure by proximity even without a visible wound, if the bat is not available for testing.”

RIDOH and DEM make the following recommendations to prevent rabies:

  • Make sure all dogs and cats are up to date on rabies vaccination.
  • Avoid all contact with and do not feed stray or free-roaming domestic animals.
  • Avoid all contact with and do not feed wild animals.
  • Do not feed your pets outdoors, as this will attract other animals. This is especially dangerous when feeding large numbers of free-roaming cats.
  • Protect your pets by always maintaining control. Walk dogs on a leash or let them play in a fenced yard, and do not let pets wander unsupervised.
  • Report all animal bites to your city/town’s animal control officer.
  • Securely cover all garbage cans so wild animals cannot scavenge for food.
  • Bat-proof your house.
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