In a horror movie, a shark or an oversized barracuda might attack an unsuspecting swimmer, but in Fairfax County it was a 35-pound rabid beaver that drove an 83-year-old woman out of the water screaming.
The woman was swimming early Tuesday evening in Lake Barcroft, a 135-acre private lake in a neighborhood near Bailey's Crossroads, when a rabid beaver attacked, latching on to her and biting her several times.
"She was able to get to shore with the beaver on her," said Fairfax County Police Department spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell.
A man who had been fishing at the lake heard the woman screaming and came to help her. He hit the beaver with a tree branch, stunning it, and threw a fishing net over the animal to capture it, Ms. Caldwell said.
Animal control officers went to the lake to euthanize the beaver. Tests conducted on the animal confirmed Wednesday that it had rabies.
The woman, who was not identified by authorities, was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where she was treated for bites on several parts of her body. Doctors administered treatment for rabies as a precaution as soon as she was admitted to the hospital, police said. Treatment for people exposed to rabies includes a series of four shots over a period of two weeks, said Dr. Peter Troell, an epidemiologist with the Fairfax County Health Department.
"If the shots are given in a timely fashion after an exposure, they are very effective at preventing rabies," Dr. Troell said.
While highly unusual, rabid beaver attacks are not unprecedented.
The attack Tuesday was the second reported in Virginia this summer. Two girls — ages 11 and 8 — were bitten by a rabid beaver while swimming in Spotsylvania County's Lake Anna in July. The beaver was killed by someone at the lake.
At that time, Virginia Department of Health officials said it was the fourth time in the past decade that a beaver in Virginia was confirmed to have rabies.
Last month, a 51-year-old Boy Scout leader from New York was attacked by a rabid beaver while swimming in the Delaware River.
Fairfax police said there have been no reports of rabid beavers or beaver attacks in the county in the past 12 years. Raccoons, skunks and foxes are more common carriers of the disease, Dr. Troell said.
While sightings of wildlife are common at Lake Barcroft, one longtime resident said this is the first she has heard of a beaver attack.
"This is not something that you worry about it," said Lake Barcroft Association President Sally Determan, who has lived in the development since 1969. "I've heard of beavers chopping down trees but not any instances of people being bitten."
Of the 450 animals in 2011 that animal control has had reason to pick up in Fairfax County and test for rabies, 40 tested positive for the disease, Dr. Troell said. Instances of people being infected with rabies are extremely rare, he said.
From 2005 to 2011, only one case was recorded in Fairfax County of a human contracting rabies, said Glen Barbour, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Health Department.
After the attack at Lake Barcroft, animal control officers are canvassing the surrounding neighborhoods to distribute information about rabies to residents. The county health department advises residents to keep pets' rabies vaccinations up to date and for people to report any animal bites to health care professionals.
The neighborhood association also is advising the more than 1,000 families who live in the area and have access to the lake to stay out of the water.
"We have suggested that for now people not go swimming," Ms. Determan said.
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