Rabid Moose Believed to Be First-Ever in North America

Rabid Moose Believed to Be First-Ever in North America

On June 2, Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials shot a rabid moose wandering the streets of Teller, Alaska—a small community north of Nome. According to a press release, the animal was “unbalanced, stumbling, drooling profusely, and had bare patches of skin.” In the hours leading up to the moose’s demise, several residents reported that it was acting unusually aggressive toward people.

Biologists initially suspected that the moose contracted rabies from a fox, and took samples of brain material for testing. A few days later, they returned positive for the Arctic fox variant of the disease.

According to state wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen in an interview with Anchorage Daily News, foxes are a reservoir for the disease, and the number of rabies-infected foxes is on the rise in the Teller and Nome areas. This past winter, the state tested nearly 70 animals, and 18 of them (28%) tested positive. In a normal year, that number would be closer to 5%. Beckman suggests that the disease is on an upswing at the moment—something the state normally sees every eight to ten years.

Officials first believed the moose to be the only known case ever in the species, but revised their statement to only North America after learning of one case in Europe. But fortunately for the folks of Teller, moose aren’t known to bite people, so the risk of human transmission was negligible.

That’s not the case for all rabies-carrying animals in Alaska, however. In 1942, a native hunter was attacked by a rabid wolf and died shortly thereafter. An account of the mauling, compiled by the state of Alaska from primary sources, tells a chilling story:

“The attack occurred at night after the man heard a disturbance outside near his dog team. Samson went out to investigate and was ferociously and repeatedly attacked by the wolf over a 30-minute period during which the man was repeatedly bitten and the wolf repeatedly stabbed with a knife. During the encounter, the wolf periodically retreated a short distance away, then returned and attacked again. The victim was near exhaustion when the wolf finally retreated into the darkness and did not return. The man subsequently recovered from the mauling, but he developed rabies and died of the disease.”

Then again in 1943, a 10-year-old boy was mauled near a Native village while he was collecting chucks of ice before school. The boy also died from the disease, which has a 100% mortality rate once symptoms are present.

In the 80 years since these two cases, dozens of other wolves in Alaska have contracted the disease and even passed it on to other species. In 2012, a wolf is thought to have transmitted the disease to a wolverine—the only known case involving the species worldwide. In that incident, wildlife biologists were flying low to the ground for a caribou predation survey when they spotted the dead wolverine. There was no obvious cause of death, and the only visible injury was a shallow wolf-bite wound to the jaw. The wolverine later tested positive for rabies, leading biologists to conclude that it must have contracted it from the wolf.

Despite the number of wild predators that can be symptomatic for rabies, the greatest risk to people in Alaska stems from dogs. Most Alaskan villages have packs of dogs roaming the streets, and many are unvaccinated against the disease. In 2021, western Alaska reported an unprecedented number of rabies exposures, several from dogs.

Still, rabies-caused deaths in humans are exceedingly rare, and with a little common sense the threat can be easily mitigated: avoid rabid-looking animals. And now, thanks to the latest incident, moose can be added to the list of species to look out for.

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