The boxes were loaded, the plane checked, safety plan reviewed and the crew was ready to go.
But one more thing had to be addressed before taking off to drop of rabies vaccine bait.
“Did you take a Gravol?” Ministry of Natural Resources representative Emilie Metcalfe asked the reporter who had joined the crew for a morning flight. “I highly recommend it. It can get bumpy up there sometimes.
“Here, I’ll get you one.”
The moment prompted a brief discussion about motion sickness and the location of barf bags, followed by a brief lecture of vomiting etiquette.
Headsets and microphones were to be removed at the first sign of sign of sickness.
With that bit of business out of the way, the crew, which included Metcalfe, Barb Piolunowska, Sarah Hagey, Sophia Konieczka, Joe Ronan and the reporter, fastened their seat belts and donned their headsets.
It was Thursday morning and the crew took off from their base at the Brantford Municipal Airport and flew to a rural area north of Stratford where they dropped thousands of khaki-green coloured rabies vaccine bait pellets from the plane.
Made of wax-fat with a vanilla-sugar flavour, the pellets are a kind of doggie or kitty treat for wild animals. The pellets are the most important tool being used in the counter-offensive to combat a rabies outbreak that began in 2015.
“It takes a lot of planning and co-operation but it’s working,” said Hagey, the crew leader of the MNR’s efforts. “The number of cases we’re seeing has dropped significantly – by half each year of the program – and it’s important work.”
Research suggests that if nothing had been done following the 2015 outbreak it could have spread to Toronto by 2017.
“The goal of this program is to contain it and prevent its spread,” Hagey said.
Anyone who was scratched or bitten by a raccoon could contract rabies and would need treatment right away. Otherwise they could die, Hagey explained.
The 2015 rabies outbreak started small with just a handful of cases but a year later the number of reported cases jumped to well over 200. The number of cases dropped to more than 100 in 2017 and by 2018, the figure dropped again to less than 100.
Since starting the program, the MNR has distributed more than four million vaccine pellets from the air and by hand to immunize most raccoons, skunks and foxes that eat them.
Still, rabies remains a concern. Two new cases of raccoon rabies were detected in two skunks in Hamilton during the week of Aug. 14.
Hagey and the crew arrived in Brantford early last week and have been conducting airdrops across a huge swath of southern Ontario including Brant, Haldimand, Norfolk, Oxford, Elgin, Halton, Hamilton, Middlesex, Niagara, Peel, Perth, Waterloo and Wellington.
Up in the plane, the team is a model of efficiency.
Bags of the pellets are lifted out of a box and the pellets are then put on a slow-moving conveyor belt. The belt carries them to a machine that releases them into the air.
Everything is coordinated and calculated so that everyone knows when the pellets will be released and the area covered. The pellets are dropped as the plane follows a pattern of lines to ensure maximum coverage.
“One of the things people need to realize is that we (the MNR) have a lot of partners,” Hagey said. “We work with other provincial ministries, federal agencies, public health, wildlife experts and humane societies.”
The program also relies on municipal airports like Brantford’s to make the program a success.
“They’re a big help and really we couldn’t do this kind of a program without their support,” Hagey said.
Another large part of the program is the collection of animal carcasses to determine cause of death while also checking for rabies. That is accomplished with the help of a lot of people including local humane societies, she said.
After dropping thousands of the rabies vaccine pellets, the crew landed back at the Brantford Airport. Some of the crew will be moving on to another area soon while others will remain in Brantford and participate in this year’s community air show. People will have an opportunity to see the plane, meet some of the crew and learn more about the program.
After landing the plane at the Brantford airport the crew did another round of checks.
Everything worked fine and best of all – no barf bags were used.