Officials Link Rabbit Fever To Mysterious Die-Off

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - A mystery surrounding dead rabbits in a South St. Louis neighborhood appears to be solved.  The culprit, according to state conservation officials, is a bacteria called tularemia.  Some know the disease as “rabbit fever.”

It was September when FOX 2 first reported on what was happening in the Villanova neighborhood, off Chippewa.  More than a dozen dead rabbits were found in the area, which is normally teeming with the animals.  Not long after that, rabbits here simply disappeared.  

“It was just a little scary.  Kind of a mystery,” Chuck Hart said.  

There were fears the West Nile virus might be the cause.  Others worried someone was poisoning the animals deliberately.  After our initial report, they were put in contact Missouri’s Department of Conservation, who looked into the details.  

In an email, state wildlife veterinarian Kelly Straka said she would usually suspect a human element, but not under these circumstances.

“As I mentioned, a disease outbreak in multiple species, especially in an urban area, is most commonly linked to some sort of toxin or contaminant that those animals are exposed to.  However, your concerns about infectious diseases are not unwarranted. The cause is most likely from Tularemia.”

“The state veterinarian explained it to me and it made sense,” another neighbor, George Kehder, said. “That why all of the rabbits died at one time was because the all contracted this.”

The disease is usually spread between animals by ticks and mosquitoes.  People can get it from handling dead animals, something Kehder knew from old family stories.

“My grandfather almost  died from rabbit fever.  From hunting.  Ya know, when you clean the rabbits.”

The city of St. Louis’ health department says “rabbit fever” is rare in humans.  Two cases have been reported in the city in the past three years.  One, however, was this past June.  They wouldn’t specify where in the city the case was found.  

For the folks in the neighborhood, there is a sense of relief.  Now they just wonder if the rabbits will return.

“I think they will eventually but it will have to be from a pretty long distance away because there aren’t any around anymore,” Kehder said.

For more information on tularemia, go here:  http://www.cdc.gov/Tularemia/

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