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Mojave Desert kit foxes struck by virus

April 18, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Man has always been portrayed as the greatest hazard to desert wildlife. But now there's a bigger danger: a powerful virus that dog and cat owners are very familiar with.

The Mojave Desert kit fox is not an endangered species -- at least not yet. But a growing threat has the potential to decimate its population.

"For the desert kit fox this is the first outbreak of distemper that's been recorded," said Kevin Leiske, a veterinarian at The Living Desert.

Leiske is the head veterinarian at The Living Desert zoo in Palm Desert. He says canine distemper can be a lethal virus. It's also a virus that most domestic cats and dogs are vaccinated against. But wild animals like the kit fox have nothing to protect them.

"It can be very troublesome and we've had a number of animals already die," said Leiske.

The outbreak was first noted in October about 25 miles west of Blythe near a solar construction site. Since then it has continued to spread at a rapid pace.

If the California Department of Fish and Game does locate a sick kit fox it will be brought to The Living Desert, where veterinarians will try to treat it and save it.

"The first couple that they brought us unfortunately either had died while in transit to us or they got here and basically they were very close to passing away and we were unable to help them," said Leiske.

Leiske says the Department of Fish and Game is vaccinating healthy kit foxes and fitting them with electronic collars to track them. He says it's important to know their locations as the animals begin to deliver new litters in the next two months.

"It could wipe out that new population, and that's why they are really trying to get a control on this," said Leiske.

It's still too early to tell what toll the virus will take on the desert fox population. For now the Department of Fish and Game says it can only monitor the situation and hope their vaccination efforts will work.

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