The Perils of the Wild, Coming Closer to Home

Dijon Johnson, who was bitten by a fox, shows his leg to his mother, Jackie Reid-Johnson, and siblings K'iary and Mion.
Dijon Johnson, who was bitten by a fox, shows his leg to his mother, Jackie Reid-Johnson, and siblings K'iary and Mion. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

She saw the footprints in the snow outside her home in the Fox Run subdivision in Waldorf, but Jackie Reid-Johnson never considered them signs of danger. So she sent her 11-year-old son, Dijon, outside to fetch the mail.

Lurking behind the bushes was a rabid fox -- a living example of a growing problem with rabies in the Washington area.

The fox attacked Dijon, gripping his pants leg with his teeth. "He sounded like an engine. It was just growling," Dijon said. "I was like really scared."

Dijon's older brother, K'iary, shook the fox off Dijon, and the screaming kids ran back inside, but the aggressive animal pursued. The mangy orange fox chased them through the living room and kitchen and then ran upstairs after their mother and younger sister.

K'iary eventually tricked the fox into entering his bedroom and slammed the door to contain the creature until authorities arrived. Sheriff's deputies killed the fox in Reid-Johnson's driveway.

Dijon, the only member of his family bitten by the animal, was treated immediately with a series of rabies vaccinations and survived the attack.

Animals carrying rabies are increasingly coming into contact with humans in communities across the region, according to data collected by health departments in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

In Charles County, where the rabid fox attacked at Fox Run in early February, the number of animals found to have rabies jumped from 10 in 2005 to 25 last year, the sharpest increase in the region. In Montgomery, Loudoun and Prince William counties, the number increased by more than 50 percent during the same period. That figure increased more modestly in the District and in Fairfax, Frederick, Howard and St. Mary's counties.

These figures do not necessarily indicate an overall rise in the number of animals carrying rabies. Rather, experts say, they show that such animals are coming into contact with humans more frequently.

Health officials attribute this trend to development patterns. As the metropolitan area continues its outward expansion, subdivisions are being built on previously forested or rural land, bringing humans closer to wild animals.

Rabies is a potentially fatal disease, so the recent increase worries animal control and public health officials. The viral disease is transmitted through the bite of an animal already carrying it.

"The challenge is to continue to get the message out to people to avoid any animal they are not familiar with," said David Goodfriend, director of Loudoun County's health department.

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