By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A confirmed case of canine leptospirosis, a serious disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans, has closed two southeastern Nassau dog runs and left residents wondering about the county's underwhelming effort to notify them.
"I can't believe the park or someone with the Town of Hempstead didn't make an announcement or send out a mailing," says Christopher Stealey, a Massapequa resident who is a frequent visitor to the park. "I wouldn't even have found out about it at all if I hadn't gone to the run."
Barbara Bagner, director of public information for the Nassau County Recreation and Parks Department, says signs were posted at both parks along with flyers stating the reason for the closing and a phone number to call for more information. She says the county contacted its own health department and the Long Island Veterinary Association for park-closing advice. But area veterinarians and residents weren't notified directlya move that several area vets call a mistake.
"It would've been better if [county officials] alerted us," says Massapequa vet Stephanie Ulrich. "This is a difficult bacteria to isolate in the lab, so knowing that it's out there right now could help in the detection of the disease."
Vets at five area clinics say they have received calls about the flyers from concerned pet owners who had visited the busy dog parks. The calls, they say, were the only notice they received about the problem. "I would've liked a formal notification on this," says one vet who requested anonymity because he didn't want to antagonize county officials. "I know their staff is very busy, but what does it take to send out a fax?"
County officials, famous for churning out press releases on "good" news, pursued a similar course of downplaying bad news earlier this fall before spraying pesticides during an encephalitis scare: The county did run full-page ads about the mosquito spraying but withheld information about the dangerous chemicals, didn't even use the word "warning" in the ads and compared one of the chemicals to chrysanthemums. This time, the county gave no notice other than small flyers at the dog runs that are dwarfed by other signs.
Leptospirosis is a contagious disease often seen in developing countries and in workers at sewage-treatment plants, much like the Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant, which overlooks the dog run in Seaford. Rats, which frequent sewage-treatment plants, carry the disease in their urine and feces. The organism causing the disease can live in soil and surface water for an extended time, which is why the parks will be closed until January.
Although leptospirosis is communicable from dogs to humans, Woodbury vet Diane Levitan, who tracks the disease, stresses that there has never been a reported instance of transmission to humans on Long Island.
"It is potentially passable, so I don't want to make light of it, but I don't want to see people freaking out over this either," she says.
Ulrich says it's possible that a rodent from the plant was the initial host. But the parks department's Bagner says that, as far as the county is concerned, the disease didn't originate in the Cedar Creek plant.
"Absolutely not," she says. "It can also be carried by raccoons, possums and other dogs, as well as rats. As far as the county is concerned, it didn't come from there."
Cedar Creek, a source of foul odors since 1972, was the focus of heated protests in the early '90s, when residents stopped the GOP-controlled government from building a plant on the site that would have converted sewage sludge into pellets. Now, David Denenberg, a Democrat who was one of the lawyers who represented residents against the pellet plant, is about to take office as the area's county legislator. Denenberg, who learned about the closing of the runs from the Long Island Voice, says he will look into why residents weren't formally notified and is considering alerting TV stations and other media.
"When the dog runs were introduced," says Denenberg, "everyone wanted to take credit for them because they thought they were a good thing, and they are. So, if they are going to be closed down for a possible health risk, then we should let people know about it."
Whether the plant is a factor is still debatable. Because the disease can be carried by any number of small mammals, no one has been able to identify exactly where it originated, says Levitan. "We've found it all over Long Island, but the majority have been seen in Suffolk County," she says. "We really aren't sure exactly where it's coming from."
Symptoms of leptospirosis include fever, stiffness, shivering, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. Since the disease has an incubation period of 48 hours to 21 days, people who have taken their dogs to either one of the parks in the past three weeks should monitor their animals and seek treatment immediately if symptoms do arise, says Levitan.
If those symptoms do occur, it's important for owners to make their vets aware that they were at the dog runs. Because leptospirosis is more prevalent in warm weather, says Wantagh vet Mitchell Pudalov, vets may overlook the symptoms, which mimic those of other, less serious diseases.