09 September 2007

Foaming at the mouth

The big news locally this week is the "r" word. Rabies. Coupled with yet another "r" word. Raccoon.

New York State has been plagued with rabid raccoons since 1990 but it continues to spread without any significant gains in curtailment, prompting local health gurus to drop vaccine-laced bait from the sky in the raccoons' favorite haunts. This is the hoped-for dam that may turn the flood around - or so they think.

But fear (specifically fear of rabies, a completely valid terror of this fatal virus) has a way of causing a secondary symptom in people: the inability to hear or comprehend. They hear "raccoon" and immediately think "squirrel."

Both are two syllable words that identify forms of wildlife. But where rabies is concerned, the similarity ends there. Raccoon rabies is not squirrel rabies. In fact, there is no squirrel rabies.

Theoretically, as a warm-blooded animal, squirrels could contract and pass it on, if attacked by a rabid animal (such as a raccoon). But New York State health officials do not consider squirrels a vector for rabies. Rather, squirrels are called "dead end hosts" because the virus, if they get it, dies with them - largely because the rabid animal kills the squirrel first before the virus even has a chance to get its hooks into these small rodents.

Groundhogs? Well, it's a different story altogether for these heftier members of the sciurid family. They could well survive an attack.

But let's not give rabies to squirrels when nature, for the most part, doesn't. Squirrels have enough real enemies to worry about.

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