23 Jul 2012

Rabies: Scary Stuff

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rabies virus

Several weeks ago, returning from shopping, as I proceeded along our driveway, I saw a skunk standing in broad daylight, right outside our fenced house compound. I slowed deliberately, intending to give the skunk a chance to scamper off, away from threatening human beings and cars. The skunk, however, failed to respond appropriately. It stood there, swaying a little from side to side, and then it began to stagger, not away toward the woods, but in the direction of a gate in the fence around the house area.

Not good, I thought. That skunk is sick, and it probably has rabies.

My dogs were outside, and if the skunk went under that gate, he could easily have run into them.

I hurriedly drove around the corner, and ran into the yard. Fortunately, both our dogs came to me immediately, and I was able to lead them into the house and safety. I’d been target-shooting recently with Karen’s 9mm Walther pistol, and it was the nearest available gun, lying ready for use on a handy shelf beneath the kitchen counter. I grabbed up the Walther and went back outside.

I walked down to the corner of the fence, and found that the skunk had not moved very far. It was still swaying. It still looked terribly sick.

Skunks present a pretty impressive hazard even without rabies, and I definitely wanted to be out of range of both deliberate and terminally-reflexive spraying, so I worked the slide and took aim from a good long 20 feet. I shot the skunk in the head with a 9mm bullet, but I had no desire to try disposing of it until it was absolutely certainly dead and completely inert, so I proceeded to empty the magazine into the animal’s head and neck region. The skunk quivered in response to the first shot, and subsequent rounds knocked it over and moved it a bit. After 10 rounds, I finally felt sure that it was dead, dead, dead, and completely past any kind of retaliation.

I walked back and got a shovel. I picked up the skunk on the blade of the shovel, got into my truck, and balancing the shovel on the car window with one hand, managed to carry the dead skunk outside the vehicle, back out our long driveway. I then carefully got out and pitched the skunk far into the uninhabited woods across the road. That placed it almost a quarter of mile from our house and much farther than that from any other homes.

Disposing of the sick skunk actually went very smoothly, but the possibilities were frightening. Our two dogs and two of our cats could have run into that skunk and been infected.

Alice Gregory‘s review of a new cultural history of rabies makes it clear that that particular disease is really far more awful than we normally realize.

“Ours is a domesticated age,” writes Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy in Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus
. Wasik is an editor at Wired and Murphy, his wife, a veterinarian. Together they have coauthored a sprawling chronicle of rabies, which until you get the numbers, seems like a willfully anachronistic topic. I did not know, for instance, that rabies is the most fatal virus in the world (only six unvaccinated people have survived, the first in 2004.) A fun party trick is forcing people to guess how many rabies fatalities there are each year. Optimists will hazard 100. Skeptics, 1,000. The real answer is 55,000, a figure so large it transforms your audience into a bunch of stoned teenagers marveling at the fact equivalent of a Big Gulp.

Wasik and Murphy’s subject might seem like a deliberately strange one, but they exercise nothing but user-friendly restraint when it comes to historical detail and medical explanation. It’s a rare pleasure to read a nonfiction book by authors who research like academics but write like journalists. They have mined centuries’ worth of primary sources and come bearing only the gems. My favorites were the archaic cures, some of which were reasonable (lancing, cauterization), while others were plain perverted. The Sushruta Samhita recommends pouring clarified butter into the infected wound and then drinking it; Pliny the Elder suggests a linen tourniquet soaked with the menstrual fluid of a dog. The virus comes up surprisingly often in literary history, too. A Baltimore-based cardiologist speculates that Edgar Allan Poe, who died in a gutter wearing somebody’s else’s soiled clothes, perished not of alcoholism, as has long been thought, but of rabies. In the most famous anecdote about Emily Bronte, she is bit by a mad dog while dawdling in a moor. Terrified of infection, she rushes home and secretly cauterizes the lesion with an iron.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that I live in Virginia these days, where vultures abound, and my property is actually infested by black vultures who try to hang out on the barn roof, nearby trees, and even occasionally the house.

They and I have reached a modus vivendi in which they know that when I say: “Get going!” they had better take off and fly somewhere else, or very soon .22 Long Rifle bullets are going to come whistling rather near them.

They commonly sit at the top of some tall Locust trees at the end of our driveway. They were not there when I disposed of the dead skunk, but they had already completely cleaned up that skunk by late afternoon (when I went out to get the mail).

Vultures are immune to rabies.

Via The Dish.

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4 Feedbacks on "Rabies: Scary Stuff"

hillclimber

Tossed it so deep into the woods that no other critters could feed on it, and get/spread the infection?



John

Yeah, not a good plan. get it and bury it deep or burn it.



mysterian

Why didn’t you have the local public health folks do a necropsy?



JDZ

I seriously doubt that necropsies are performed out here in Fauquier County by anybody but the black buzzards.



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