Not to turn this column into Animal Planet, but I'd like to follow up my recent post about a cute bear with a story about a not-so-cute skunk, which offers a lesson about the amoral genius of evolution.
The episode took place on a summer morning three years ago, when I let my black, curly-coated retriever Merlin out into our backyard. While I was making coffee, I glanced through the sliding glass doors that divide our kitchen from an outside deck and noticed Merlin pawing his face, which was speckled with yellow goo. When I opened the door, the stench hit me: rotten eggs, burning tires, so acrid my eyes watered. You haven't smelled skunk spray until you've smelled it up close and fresh.
At that point, my reaction was just mild annoyance. I contemplated waking my wife, a wild-bird rehabilitator and the animal expert in our family. She would know what to do with a skunk-sprayed dog. Then a fluffy, black-and-white creature waddled up the stairs of the deck and toward me and Merlin. I remember thinking how comical the skunk looked just before it leaped at Merlin and fastened its jaws on his hind leg. Merlin, a 120-poundgentle giant, howled with pain and terror.
I was in shock. We live less than 65 kilometers from New York City—civilization, not a place where crazed (nonhuman) animals attack people. Gathering my wits, I repeatedly kicked the skunk, until it finally tumbled away from Merlin. Merlin and I darted into the house, and the skunk, squirting mustard gas in all directions, lunged after us. I slammed the sliding glass door on its head and booted it back onto the deck, where it staggered in circles, gnashing its teeth. What to do? I needed a weapon. I ran into the garage and spotted a pitchfork. Thus armed, I ventured back onto the deck and, after a minute or two of dodging the skunk's teeth and spray, dispatched the poor beast.
By the end of the day, Google had taught me almost more than I wanted to know about rabies, a horrific disease that afflicts a wide variety of mammals, first described by Mesopotamian scribes four millennia ago. Rabies is caused by an RNA-based virus that creeps from the site of infection—almost always a bite from an infected animal—through the nervous system to the brain; there the virus hijacks the limbic system and hippocampus. Weeks or months after the initial exposure, symptoms appear. Some victims of rabies become paralyzed and die after a week or so, but many—and especially dogs, raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats—are transformed into vicious, biting, rabies-propagating zombies.
In The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976), the biologist Richard Dawkins famously described human beings as "robot vehicles blindly programmed" to propagate genes. That description is even more apt for animals possessed by the rabies virus. Rabies is sometimes called hydrophobia because victims cannot swallow and often become panic-stricken at the mere sight of water. This symptom ensures that victims' mouths remain well-stocked with the virus, which collects in saliva. Another feature of rabies is not adaptive but gratuitous: human victims remain intermittently lucid for a week or so before they collapse into convulsions and die.
In the late 19th century Louis Pasteur showed that he could inoculate people bitten by a rabid animal by injecting them with a serum extracted from infected rabbits. Modern vaccines and antibody treatments—given prophylactically to dogs as well as to people post-exposure—have drastically reduced deaths from rabies in the U.S. and other developed countries. But rabies still kills an estimated 55,000 people a year in underdeveloped regions of Asia, Africa and South America, and the disease has recently surged among raccoons, skunks and other wild mammals here in the U.S. A few Americans still die every year because they don't realize they've been infected—usually by the pinprick of a bat's fang—until it's too late.
In 2004 physicians in Wisconsin saved the life of a teenage girl who had acquired full-blown rabies after being scratched by a bat. As one of the doctors reported in Scientific American in 2007, they put her into a coma with injections of ketamine, a powerful anesthetic, and treated her with antiviral drugs. She is the first unvaccinated person in history known to have survived full-blown rabies. Her treatment has been attempted on other patients, with mixed results.
In 2003 the biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Scientific American that the rabies virus "knows" more about the neural basis of aggression than scientists do. He suggested that brain researchers devote more attention to the disease. Call me paranoid, but I'm not so sure I want researchers to take that advice. It's too easy to imagine an evil military scientist trying to create a mutant rabies virus that turns soldiers into killing machines.
Dawkins and other atheistic scientists like to uphold nasty creatures such as parasitical wasps—who eat their hosts alive from the inside—as evidence against the existence of a benevolent God. I think rabies demonstrates even more conclusively that life was designed by natural selection, which is—and please pardon the anthropomorphism—an extremely clever, utterly heartless psychopath. I can't reconcile rabies with a loving, all-powerful Creator. If you can, please tell me how.
Merlin had been vaccinated by our vet, so he would be fine. But what about me? Could I catch rabies from skunk musk, which I inhaled in abundance? Apparently not. Although a few spelunkers have allegedly been infected by particles of bat guano and urine, there are no confirmed reports of aerosol transmission of the rabies virus. Phew.
I decided not to get rabies shots, but I warned my wife—who is now my ex-wife—that if I started drooling and snapping at her and the kids, she should have me euthanized. She gave me a look and said, "Where's that pitchfork?"
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons