PORTAGE — Rick Henderlong usually spends his day answering calls about lost or roaming dogs throughout the city.
This summer, however, his animal control department has been responding to an uptick in calls for the removal of diseased raccoons.
Since early July, the Portage department has captured and euthanized 16 raccoons inflicted with distemper.
"This has been the heaviest year in the 13 years I've been with animal control," Henderlong said.
Portage Animal Control does not routinely answer calls concerning wildlife, he said, adding they refer residents to licensed wildlife companies to remove healthy wildlife, including raccoons, which may be causing residents problems.
Henderlong said they see an uptick in raccoons with distemper every five to seven years. The raccoons have been removed from every area in the city.
Stephanie Kadletz, director of the Moraine Ridge Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Valparaiso, said they have also been getting an increasing number of calls from residents. Their organization does not respond to calls to capture the sick animals.
"We've definitely seen an increase in Lake and Porter counties. Last year there were more in LaPorte County. Last year we had about 10 calls. This year we've been getting two to three calls a week for the last three to four weeks," she said, adding they also tell residents to call a licensed wildlife company to remove the animals.
The population of raccoons is "very high right now," said Kadletz, adding the disease, which is spread from raccoon to raccoon, is "somewhat nature's way to control the population."
Kadletz said there are three strains of distemper — canine, feline and mink. It is not contagious to people, but can be spread to pets, which emphasizes the need for residents to have their dogs and cats vaccinated against the disease.
"We had some coyotes come in earlier this year with distemper. Skunks and foxes can also catch it," she said.
Officials at both the Porter County and LaPorte County animal control agencies said they do not handle diseased wildlife and refer callers to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. A call to Lake County Animal Control was not returned.
Phil Bloom, spokesperson for the DNR, said his department's officers do not respond to calls to remove diseased wildlife. He said residents who encounter raccoons with distemper should contact a licensed wildlife control operator. A list of such operators in Northwest Indiana is available at in.gov/dnr/fishwild/files/fw-Licensed_Nuisance_Wild_Animal_Control_Op.pdf
Bloom said conservation officers have not reported a greater number of calls this year involving diseased raccoons.
"It is common. They see it, but it more common in urbanized areas where they spread the disease from one to another," said Bloom.