Pinellas County is one of only two communities in the country testing a new program aimed at eradicating rabies. Animal services staffers are distributing oral rabies vaccination pellets to every road in the county as part of a research project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Normally the pellets are distributed along the northern border of the county. The goal is eliminate the disease among raccoons, the primary carrier of the disease. "It's like raccoon cookies," said county spokeswoman Mary Burrell. "It looks like an ice cube but just a little bit smaller."
The pellets also have a fishy smell, Burrell said.
Authorities want to alert residents about the program because some of the pellets could end up in driveways and sidewalks. They are not harmful to pets, officials say.
This is the first time in a decade that the pellets are being distributed countywide.
"This is a drastic change in philosophy for the county's experts, who have contended that rabies could not be eradicated," the county said in a statement. "The idea of completely wiping out this virus is an exciting development.''
Pinellas was chosen because it is on a peninsula, making it theoretically easier to contain the rabies virus. Cape Cod is the other area involved.
The USDA also chose Pinellas because it has had a successful rabies control program underway since 1995, when 30 rabies cases were reported. In 2005, the number fell to zero.
Over the years, the figure has continued to stay minimal.
Last year, four cases were identified in Pinellas County, three through the USDA and one through Pinellas County Animal Control, according to Betsy Haley, wildlife biologist for the USDA.
The USDA spent $106,000 on 70,000 pieces of bait.
Beginning in March, teams will begin gathering blood samples from raccoons in the area.
"We'll catch the raccoons, take their blood, and in some instances, teeth, and send the samples to labs where we'll see if they have the antibodies for the rabies in their system,'' Haley said.
The distribution began Jan. 26 and ends Friday or until every area is reached.
Times Staff Writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report.