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Since Lake Accotink rabid coyote attacks, residents increasingly report concerns

Fairfax County Police Lt. Dan Spital talks to the media at Lake Accotink after a coyote bit three adults and two dogs (via Fairfax County Police Department)

Fairfax County Animal Protection has seen an increase in the number of coyote-related calls since a rabid coyote bit three adults, two dogs and an officer last month.

“The recent incident of the rabid coyote at Lake Accotink has understandably created concerns for many residents about wildlife and public health and safety,” the Animal Protection Police said.

However, they say rabid coyotes are relatively rare, and none of the calls have indicated the animals sighted have rabies.

Coyotes are well-established in the county, and it’s normal to see them in parks and residential neighborhoods. They generally avoid human contact. The coyote that was spotted in June displaying signs of rabies — biting vehicle tires and other aggressive behavior — was killed after he bit an officer.

Since then, there have been 12 calls for service related to coyotes in the Springfield area. Seven of those reported coyote sightings involved the animals living close to people but displaying normal behavior, two reported injured coyotes, and the others shared concerns.

Animal Protection Police says most of the behavior reported is not indicative of sick or rabid animals, “especially given the time of year with coyotes raising pups.” Park ecologists were also monitoring the site and did not detect any unusual wildlife behavior on camera, police said.

“Based on the information received, the Animal Protection Police and Wildlife Management Specialist do not consider there to be an increased threat of rabies at Lake Accotink Park,” Animal Protection Police said.

In one call reported in June, a coyote followed a person on a trail, but when Animal Protection Police arrived, the animal was gone.

“The event notes stated the coyote seemed to be displaying normal behavior per the conversation with the caller,” police said. “The behavior described sounded like the coyote was engaged in ‘escorting’ behavior where coyotes will sometimes escort people and pets out of their territory, especially if there might be a den nearby.”

Another call in June reported a coyote “circling, barking, and snarling” at Greentree Village Park, and on Monday, July 18, a caller said he was approached by coyotes twice in Lake Accotink Park but was able to scare them away.

“The caller was fearful that the coyotes might attack him and requested an escort from the park,” police said. “A patrol unit provided him a ride out of the park. There was no mention of symptoms or behavior consistent with rabies in the event notes.”

Police said most of the calls were not within the immediate Lake Accotink area and were reported several miles from the park throughout the greater Springfield area.

Rabies is consistently present in wildlife populations at lower, manageable levels, police said. Annually about 20 to 50 animals are confirmed as rabid by lab testing throughout the county. Animals such as raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats can also get rabies.

“The incidence of rabies in coyotes in Virginia is very low,” police said. “According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, there have only been 4 other reported cases of coyotes with rabies in the Commonwealth since 2012, including one case each in Loudoun County (2018), Franklin County (2016), Page County (2016), and Williamsburg City (2014), along with the recent coyote confirmed with rabies this June in Fairfax County.”

As a general precaution, we recommend that people maintain a safe distance from wildlife and do not feed, approach or attempt to handle wild animals. We recommend keeping pets up to date on vaccinations, supervising pets when outdoors, and obeying the county leash law to limit potential exposure to wild animals.

If an animal is acting unusual or displaying signs that may indicate it is sick or injured, it should be reported directly to the Fairfax County Animal Protection Police through the police non-emergency number at 703-691-2131.

Warning signs that may indicate a rabid animal include disorientation, a stumbling or staggering gait, erratic wandering or circling, excessive drooling, unprovoked aggression or animals that appear tame, self-mutilation, biting or snapping at imaginary objects, difficulty swallowing, paralysis, and/or seizures.

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