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A 95-year-old Maine resident beat a rabid fox to death with a wooden plank

A fox in Pembroke, Mass.
A fox in Pembroke, Mass.(File 1999/Boston Globe)

In his 95 years on this planet, Robert Galen has found himself in some pretty hairy situations.

The retired radiologist and former Navy captain was shipwrecked in the Bahamas; crash-landed a small plane on a Maine pond after the engine cut out; and was stuck on a mountain in Greece after injuring his leg on a scenic bike ride.

But this week marked the first time in the "pretty active" Mainer's life that he came face-to-face with what was later determined to be a rabid fox — an animal he reluctantly killed by beating it over and over again with a wooden plank.

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"I've had fox around here, but I've never had an experience like this," Galen, who has lived in Brunswick since the 1960s, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I saw the animal, it was right in front of me — and I struck it."

The tense standoff between Galen and the roughly 10-pound fox took place late Monday afternoon in Galen's backyard, he said. The sprightly nonagenarian was replacing a rotting, 16-foot plank on his back deck, and cutting it up into pieces with a chainsaw before installing a new plank.

Galen said he chucked the chopped-up pieces down onto the yard below his deck, before eventually walking around the house to gather them up and haul them to his garden.

He had planned to use the excess wood to build a raised bed. But as one of the pieces hit the ground, it broke in half.

Galen said he leaned down to pick up the split plank, and when he looked up, there it was, standing within a foot and a half of him: the fox.

It's hard to say what could have happened if Galen hadn't been holding the piece of splintered wood as he locked eyes with the furry creature. But he's glad that he was.

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Galen was aware of other recent reports in Brunswick about rabid animals. According to Brunswick Police, a rabid skunk recently attacked two dogs in town, and a grey fox went after a woman "who sustained significant wounds to both legs."

Given the unusual behavior of the fox, who approached him in the daytime, Galen wasn't taking any chances.

Before the fox could get any closer, Galen said he instinctively took a whack at it, striking it on the head.

"I reflexively hit it on the head with this 3- or 4-foot piece of wood. I stunned it, but it didn't faze it too much," said Galen. "I beat on him pretty hard. I must've hit him eight or 10 times. As I was hitting him, I knocked him down, and I was trying to kill him. He went down, but he was still viable."

At one point, Galen lost his balance and fell back into an azalea bush. While on the ground, he kept his focus on the fox.

"The fox is still alive and I'm lying sort of on my back, hanging onto this big club, and so, we were very close together, so I hit him some more," he said. "I hurt my back actually. It was an abnormal position that I was in. But I got out of the brush and I took one of the wood planks and put it on top of him and he squealed. It was pretty terrible.

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"It was a confrontation that, if I hadn't had that stick in my hand, I would have been chewed up."

Luckily, Galen never came into contact with the animal's saliva and the fox "never had the chance" to lunge at or attack him, he said. But he did find curious scratches on his New Balance sneakers after the incident, which he suspects — but can't be certain — were from the fox. The small tears did not go through his shoe, however.

The Portland Press Herald reported that a game warden bagged up the fox and took it away. The following day, the newspaper said, officials from Maine's Center for Disease Control contacted Galen to let him know that the fox had indeed been rabid. Brunswick police also confirmed that to the Globe.

While the run-in was alarming, Galen was relieved to learn the news.

Since his wife died almost a decade ago, he said he's "befriended the wildlife" he often sees on his property. Sometimes, he said, if he has a good bone leftover from dinner, he tosses it outside on his deck, and watches as crows, or raccoons, or other critters investigate the remains and nibble on them.

If the fox hadn't been sick, Galen would have been downcast about what he'd done.

"I really want to emphasize that I was really relieved that the animal was indeed rabid," he said. "I felt badly about killing it."

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Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.