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State officials investigate rabies at goat farm

A donkey at Elodie Farms in Durham County died of rabies, prompting concerns about the safety of goat cheese and for students who visited the farm.

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ROUGEMONT, N.C. — Concerns about animals and products from Rougemont-based Elodie Farms after the death of a donkey from rabies appear unfounded, with officials determining that a goat herd and the goat cheese produced by the farm weren't infected.

Owner Dave Artigues said the donkey was acting aggressively before it died last week, lunging at his girlfriend and his dog. So, he took the carcass to Raleigh for testing and learned Friday that the donkey had rabies.

"It was very sad. Eddie was an awesome animal. He was a great donkey,” Artigues said. "Then we sort of realized, yikes, there are other animals on the farm. What else could happen?"

He called state agriculture inspectors to Elodie Farms to check the goat herd, which shared a fence with the donkey's pasture. The inspectors determined the goats were fine, he said.

On Saturday, a veterinarian who was vaccinating animals at the farm put down a goat that was shaking as a precaution and notified state inspectors again, Artigues said.

Brian Long, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, said inspectors placed a second goat under quarantine during their visit to the farm because it had "a suspect mark on its head." The rest of the goats showed no signs of exposure to rabies, he said.

Officials with the state Department of Health and Human Services said the dead goat tested negative for rabies.

Artigues said he stopped selling goat cheese at the Durham Farmers Market Saturday after learning that a goat in his herd was sick and needed to be put down. He said the goat milk in his cheese is pasteurized, so it shouldn't pose a health threat.

"(Pasteurization) just kills all the bad antigens that are in the milk,” he said.

Still, he dumped some goat milk and took a sample of unpasteurized milk to a state lab in Raleigh for testing.

"It’s always a scary thing when you have a product like this and people consume and enjoy it,” he said.

Long said any pasteurized dairy product should be safe to eat.

Ten to 15 students from Montessori Farm School in Hillsborough toured Elodie Farms last week and interacted with the goats, head of school Lisa Tate said. Artigues said the students adopted one of his goats as a class project and have been visiting the farm for several weeks.

Tate said no one was bitten or injured during the school visit, adding that school staff and students' parents weren't panicking while awaiting the results of rabies tests on the goat.

"It means so much to them to be with the goats and the animals, and it’s just a great environment for the kids to learn," Artigues said. ”it’s such a weird, tragic thing.”

Artigues said his girlfriend and his two sons have started receiving rabies vaccinations because they had close contact with the donkey. He isn't receiving the vaccines yet, and he said he hopes none of the Montessori students needs to receive the series of shots.

"I just hope that everybody understands that we’ll get through this, and it’ll be all right,” he said.

Officials said this is the first known case of rabies in a donkey in Durham County. They said it likely occurred when a rabid animal passed through the donkey's pasture.

Raccoons accounted for more than 55 percent of the positive rabies cases statewide in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the State Laboratory of Public Health. Skunks were next with nearly 21 percent, followed by foxes at about 13 percent.

State Health Director Dr. Jeffrey Engel said officials are still investigating to determine how the donkey contracted rabies, and they aren't recommending rabies shots for anyone who came into contact with the goats.



Erin Hartness, Reporter
Pete James, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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