A new strain of rabies has infected the majority of University of Calgary rabbits, igniting fears that students may be in danger. Campus Security and university administration first learned of the rabbits’ disease after finding several squirrels and magpies “torn to shreds,” said university contact Angela Koening.
“We thought it was the work of a coyote on campus, but the infected rabbits are ganging up on other animals,” Koening continued.
The majority of symptoms seen in the infected rabbits include increased aggression, red eyes and abnormal brown spots on their fur. U of C veterinary medicine professor Maggie Schultz said the symptoms were “similar to rabies,” but that it was “abnormal to see rabies in non-predatory animals.” Schultz was called in to study the new strain of rabies and to determine how it affects the rabbits’ behaviour.
“Something has changed with this strain of rabies that has allowed it to affect non-predatory animals in a different way than previously seen in predatory animals,” Schultz said. Especially evident in this strain is directional aggression, she added.
Third-year economics student Kyle McKenzie was the first student to see and report the rabbits’ strange behaviour. He saw a group of four brown-spotted, red-eyed rabbits “ripping apart” two squirrels on Feb. 1.
“It was horrific — there was fur flying everywhere,” McKenzie said. “Those eyes, those deep red eyes . . . This will haunt me forever.”
McKenzie watched in horror as the rabbits attacked the squirrels, but left as soon as the rabbits started to hop towards him. “I thought, shit man, their eyes were glazed over like they weren’t even conscious. Like zombies!”
Campus Security reported to the scene, at first skeptical of McKenzie’s story. After following bloody footprints to the group of infected rabbits, Campus Security captured one for testing.
“There are groups of infected rabbits attacking animals rather than one rabbit attacking others. This indicates that they are directing their aggression toward others, not against themselves,” Schultz said. “It’s almost as if the rabbits are working together in order to feed.”
Though Schultz says the new rabies strain is still contagious across species and through bites, Koening explains there is no threat to students. However, Koening explains, if students see three or more rabbits together, they are advised to call Campus Security or to take a picture and tweet it to @UCalgary with their location.
“Despite the extreme aggression and squirrel carnage seen so far, we have no evidence supporting the theory that students are in danger,” said Koening. “Campus Security and the university administration at this time do not see any ability for the rabbits to take down as large an animal as the North American student.”