CAROLINE, N.Y.—An ordinary morning for a Caroline woman quickly turned chaotic earlier this month when an unwelcomed visitor appeared at her homestead on Slaterville Rd. 

Pamela Austin said she was moving through her typical morning routine, working from home and tending to her animals when she heard a commotion from the barn on her property around noon. 

“I went down to tend to the horses, and as soon as I turned around I felt the earth shaking and heard this terrible snorting sound,” Austin said. “I quickly realized that the sound was coming from my horse and something was terribly wrong.” 

Austin said she ran back into the barn to see her horse, Sambuca – a 12-year-old black stallion – in a panic in his stall. When she opened the door to his stall, she noticed that Sambuca was trying to attack a rabid fox that had entered his home. “I could tell he was in trouble with this fox, and I had to open the door to let him run,” she said. 

After releasing her horse from his stall, Austin said she ran back to her house where she keeps a .22 caliber rifle. When she arrived back at the scene in her barn, she saw that Sambuca had successfully trampled the fox to death. 

“I immediately ran out to my horse to see if he was okay, and thankfully he didn’t have a scratch on him,” Austin said. “After calling the vet and the health department, I called my husband – he thought I got the date wrong for April Fools!” 

After testing, it was determined that the fox did indeed have rabies. While stories of rabid animal sightings in Tompkins County are not unheard of, sometimes a wild animal with rabies can appear completely normal, explained Cynthia Mosher, Environmental Health Specialist and Rabies Program Manager for Tompkins County Whole Health. 

“With some animals, it’s very obvious – they might stumble, drool, fall over, or attack,” Mosher explained. “Most people would recognize that and stay away, but a fox could carry the virus up to five days and appear completely healthy before it started showing symptoms.” 

Austin said she recognized the same fox from last spring when he snuck in and ate 30 of her chickens. She described him as a “beautiful red fox with a dark ring around the base of his tail.”

“I knew he was the same one because we got to be good friends last year when he outsmarted me,” Austin said. “I assure you, the fox that attacked Sambuca was beautiful and there were no visible signs that he was sick, you wouldn’t have known it – but he was very sick, and he wouldn’t have come wandering into that barn if he wasn’t.” 

While the outcome for Austin and her animals was okay, she said it could have easily turned tragic. 

“Sambuca would never ever deliberately hurt anything because of his training and his gentle manner,” Austin said. “In the end, he saved me, and another animal from further suffering.”

Increases in reports on rabid animals are not directly associated with one season, but typically correlate with seasonal patterns, Mosher explained. 

“While any mammal can get rabies, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are called ‘vector species,’ meaning they are the most common animals to carry it,” she said. “However, the two common strains in New York are the bat strain and the raccoon strain. A genetic test confirmed the fox was infected with the raccoon strain.”

According to Mosher, mating season for a fox usually occurs between February and March, leading to more interaction between the animals. Following mating season is the incubation period of the virus, where animals that contracted rabies during the mating season might pop up in April. As the weather gets warmer, more animals are out and about looking for food and encountering each other, offering another opportunity to contract the virus. As the end of summer rolls around, the spring babies are adventuring more around August, when another period might occur and transmit the virus. 

“It is a cyclical pattern throughout the year and it all has to do with the incubation period,” Mosher said. 

Austin’s biggest concern was for more general awareness about rabies in the area and keeping animals and pets vaccinated against the virus. 

“Rabies is rampant out here, and we’re not far from another attack that happened nearby,” she said, referencing a video that went viral last summer of an Ithaca woman attacked in her yard by a rabid grey fox.

“If you or your animals come into contact with anything, you have to tell someone – you just have to assume everything is infected,” she said. “Unfortunately this is nature’s way of balancing, but until things get back to normal, vaccinate everything you can possibly vaccinate, and hopefully it will move along.”  

Mosher said that entering the baby season, more young animals will be roaming and exploring. “If an animal approaches you, that’s not normal – if you have any concerns about an animal, get in touch with a wildlife ranger,” she said, encouraging people to contact the health department if someone has been bitten, scratched or “otherwise handled” a bat or wild mammal larger than a squirrel. “Let the wildlife be and allow them to go on their own.” 

The Health Department will be hosting two rabies clinics in the upcoming months to help vaccinate pets and animals against rabies. The first is a drive-through clinic and will be held at the TCAT bus garage on April 22 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. The second is a walk-up clinic at the Danby Fire Station on May 3 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Pre-registration through the Health Department website is strongly encouraged.

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.