Search still on for person who touched woodchuck, rabies a concern

Jun 14, 2023

The search continues for the individual, possibly a child, who recently touched a woodchuck on or near John George Ice Cream, potentially exposing the person to rabies.

The individual is not in trouble, Dartmouth Director of Public Health Chris Michaud said, but the Board of Health wants to ensure that he or she receives proper medical treatment.

The Board of Health put out a notice to the public about the incident, which happened about 5 p.m. June 11.

A person, which some bystanders said might be a child, apparently found and touched a young woodchuck. The animal was then placed in a box, Michaud said, and brought to employees of the ice cream stand at 291 Slocum Road. 

The employees “did the right thing,’’ according to Michaud, and contacted animal control. But the woodchuck had escaped from the box, Michaud said, before animal control personnel arrived at the scene.

Without the animal at hand, testing could not be done to determine if the creature had rabies. 

Michaud is concerned because wild animals such as woodchucks, even when they are young, tend to be “spooked’’ by humans. Michaud is concerned that the animal potentially was sick, which altered its behavior and allowed it to be picked up by someone. 

The public should “never, ever, ever handle wildlife,’’ he said.

Rabies is not the only risk. Wild animals can also transmit parasites and zoonotic illnesses that spread between humans and wildlife, Michaud said. 

In addition to potential danger to the public, Michaud noted that when humans interact with wildlife, the situation often ends badly for the animal. 

He cited the example of people who find young deer and attempt to move them, not realizing that does often leave fawns for a time while they forage for food. Even if the well-intentioned person returns the fawn to where it was found, the mother might have moved on and the young deer could face a difficult death from starvation.

Although some people are treating the woodchuck encounter lightly, rabies is often fatal and should not be dismissed, he said. 

“This is a high-risk situation,’’ he said.

He hopes the person who handled the animal has reached out to medical personnel on their own if they are hesitant to come forward. Michaud stressed that he would not release the person’s name but simply wants to be sure they receive medical attention. 

Anyone who has come into contact with a woodchuck or knows someone who has is asked to contact the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) at 617-983-6800 (available 24 hours/7 days a week) or a health care provider for a rabies exposure risk assessment as soon as possible.

Any person who has contact with saliva through a bite or a scratch, or if saliva gets into a fresh wound, or the eyes, nose or mouth, can be exposed to the virus.

Woodchucks, often called groundhogs, are common and abundant in the state, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. 

Woodchucks eat plants, consuming a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation, including clover, wild lettuce, grasses, chickweed, and dandelion. They also eat hay grasses, alfalfa, corn, and a variety of common garden or commercial crops. They are often seen in grassy areas, including along roadways and in backyards.