It isn’t easy to think clearly when a rabies-crazy raccoon suddenly sinks its jagged devil teeth into your thumb. But Rachel Borch, the Maine hiker who was recently attacked by a rabid raccoon in the woods, had the presence of mind to fight savagery with savagery: When the terrifying critter’s jaws wouldn’t unclamp, she plunged her hand into a puddle, holding the raccoon’s head underwater until it drowned.
While it may seem like an unconventional way to deal with a rabid animal attack, the animal control expert who handled the fallout, Heidi Blood, told Inverse that Borch’s response was “phenomenal.”
“This young lady did absolutely everything correct,” said Blood. “She was just absolutely instrumental.”
Most official advice on how to deal with rabid animals outlines what to do when you spot a rabid animal in the wild. Usually, instructions on what to do if you are bitten are also available. But what no one ever tells you is what to do in the moment that that rabid animal actually bites you.
According to Blood, that’s because rabid animal bites are actually quite uncommon. “The encounter that this woman had is extremely rare,” she said, explaining that rabies in the wild presents in either of two forms: “dumb” or “ferocious.” Animals with dumb rabies, the most common form, appear to be “drunk, acting silly, walking in circles, being seen in places in the daytime where they normally wouldn’t,” and they rarely attack. Usually, the rabies virus kills the animal before it progresses to the “ferocious” stage, but when it does, the animal poses much more of a threat.
“This one obviously had ferocious,” says Blood, referring to the advanced form of rabies where the animal is “mean, snarling, all teeth, attacking.” What is one supposed to do when an animal with ferocious rabies actually attacks?
“It’s imperative that the animal be destroyed,” Blood says, commending Borch’s quick thinking. Once it’s killed, the animal should be collected and brought to the local animal control services center, where data on the animal’s whereabouts and infection status will be logged in order to track and contain future outbreaks of rabid animals. Blood is concerned about the prevalence of rabies in her state, and with good reason. In 2016, a total of 66 rabid animals were documented in Maine over the course of the entire year; this year’s count is already at 22, and the summer has just begun.
It’s unclear why rabies cases are increasing, but while researchers figure it out, it’s important to stay vigilant and prepare yourself against attacks. If you should find yourself in a situation like Borch’s, you should definitely find a way to get the animal off your hand and/or kill it somehow. But if you see an animal with ferocious rabies approaching from a distance, Blood says, you should do everything you can to get away. There’s a technique to doing so, she says.
“The best thing to do is not run away but just slowly and steadily move in the opposite direction of the animal. If it is approaching you, the best thing to do is walk in a zig-zag line, because animals with rabies obviously have major brain injury, so walking in a zig-zag line will confuse them.”
If you are bitten, it’s imperative to wash the affected area with soap and water immediately, and then get to a doctor as quickly as possible. Depending on the severity of the bite, you’ll likely receive a suite of rabies vaccinations over the next two weeks. You can expect to make a full recovery if you get treatment fast enough; infection with rabies, a virus, is only possible if that virus is given a chance to grow in the body.
Though Borch is being commended for her fearless and rapid response, she seemed stunned by her own behavior in her interview with the Bangor Daily News, which first reported her story.
“If there hadn’t been water on the ground, I don’t know what I would have done,” Borch said. “It really was just dumb luck. I’ve never killed an animal with my bare hands. I’m a vegetarian. It was self-defense.”