“We don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what they died of,” said Andrea Degos, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health (DOH).
Until last Friday, it was believed that only two calves had died: a black and white one on July 21, and a brown one on July 26.
Knowledge about the death of a third calf — in June — surfaced last week. Officials at both the state DOH and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) say they only became aware of the June death of the first calf last Friday, Aug. 9 — too late by far to test its tissue for possible causes of death.
The two most recent calf deaths (on July 21 and on July 26) — drew considerable public attention in part because the calf that died July 21 bit a child that had approached its paddock next to Gray’s Ice Cream store at the intersection of Main and East Roads in Four Corners.
The bitten victim, from Massachusetts, notified health officials in that state, who contacted the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), who in turn notified the Tiverton animal control officer in the Tiverton police department, who quarantined the animal.
After that creature died on July 21, its owner, Marilyn Bettencourt, who is also the owner and operator of Gray’s Ice Cream, notified the animal control officer of the death, but the message left for him was not retrieved until three days later.
By that time, the dead animal had become so badly decomposed that authorities could not test it for anything, including rabies. It was a “pile of bones,” said Dr. Scott Marshall, the state veterinarian with DEM.
Despite the inability to test the July 21 calf carcass for rabies or some other pathogen, and after knowledge of the Massachusetts bite victim became known, both DEM and DOH advised any individuals who may have touched the animal between July 5 and July 21 to contact DOH.
Ms. Degos said DOH assessed 273 Rhode Island residents for their at-risk exposure during this interval to the dead July 21 calf, and 23 of them were recommended to secure rabies treatment by a clinical medical provider of their choice.
She said DOH does not know how many actually obtained rabies treatment.
On July 26, the second calf died, the brown one. Its body was tested by the DOH laboratory for rabies, and the results were negative. A necropsy on the dead creature is underway and pending at the Connecticut Veterinary Diagnostic laboratory.
Ms. Degos said the results of the necropsy should be known “in a week or two.”
About other possible risks to human health suggested by the calf deaths, Ms. Degos said, “regarding your question about any other pathogens we might be concerned about, I want to reiterate that there is no evidence of risk of human disease transmission at this time.”
“Rabies,’ she said, “is the only disease we’re concerned with because cows are not a common vector for human disease.”
Ms. Degos said the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been notified about the calves’ deaths.
The owner of the calves, Ms. Bettencourt, did not respond to inquiries and through a spokesperson declined comment.
The area where the calves were kept lies in the watershed of the town of Tiverton landfill.