Rabies All Over the Room

Rabies All Over the Room

I have a fear of rabies that is totally and utterly irrational. Or so I’m told. I don’t entirely believe that, but I’m not allowed to Google it.

And I don’t know how this terror came about in the first place. I never read Old Yeller. I don’t remember the scene where Atticus Finch shoots the mad dog to be a particularly traumatizing part of To Kill a Mockingbird. There was no singular moment or experience that crystallized this fear into my amygdala.

It was more like a slow evolution, where various events (some of which, admittedly, have not a whit to do with rabies) gradually built up over time so that now, my first thought upon seeing an animal, whether in the wild, at the zoo, or on a farm, is: I bet the damn thing is rabid. I don’t actually need to even see an animal, mere evidence of wildlife is enough — muddy footsteps on the sidewalk, holes dug into the mulch around my shrubs. These all prompt me to the absolute conclusion that whatever creature caused them was likely rabid and any contact with the footprint, fur or hole could be dangerous.

I realize that I have inflated, conflated and invented ways to get rabies and, if it were indeed as contagious as I have made it, we would all be vaccinated for it at an early age. Indeed, rabies is a well-understood disease with clear precautionary measures that can be taken. And no matter how many times I tell myself this, it does not help. Over forty-plus years, my brain has very effectively programmed my fears and I have had a hell of a time rewiring the circuitry. 

During my eighth birthday party, a backyard barbeque, a baby squirrel ran up the inside of my mom’s pant leg, totally apropos of nothing. She hopped around the deck with a lump moving up her capris, to the delight of all my friends. Understandably concerned by the incident, she promptly called animal control and a uniformed officer arrived. HE declared there to be no danger and even held the squirrel to allow all the kids pet its tail. I considered this to be an awesome and exciting turn of events for a party (baby animals!) and I was (and still often am) totally deferential to authority. If someone in a uniform says it is fine, that’s all I needed.

(In retrospect, I’m skeptical of the whole scenario. This guy could tell if an animal has a communicable disease just by looking? Shouldn’t there have been some testing, or a quarantine, or – least of all – not encouraging direct interaction? And wasn’t that baby squirrel at risk of being rejected by its mother because now it smelled like a dozen elementary school students? That poor thing probably starved in the pachysandra where we left him.)

Then there was the whole rabbit incident.

Followed by the whole dobbit incident.

But the first time rabies qua rabies officially entered onto my radar was at a vet’s office. I was there with my black lab, McCartney (as in Paul). He was, quite literally, the perfect dog. Mac never licked. He never surfed the counter to steal food. He never put his paws on you. Totally unintentionally, he could clear the coffee table with his wagging tail. Then he would scamper into the other room, having scared himself with the crashing of remotes and coasters and coffee mugs. A very nervous dog, he would not walk on synthetic flooring, whether Pergo or vinyl. He would only enter the kitchen through one door and exit through the other, never backtracking. During the national anthem of televised Red Sox games, he would howl along. He also joined in for opera, which made watching the Sopranos difficult at times. Intelligent and trainable, we invested in obedience lessons and he could quickly execute commands based upon hand signals alone. People would stop us on the street to compliment him, he was so striking. He was originally intended to be a show dog, but his tail grew too long by a quarter of an inch. Alas, he couldn’t be shown or bred and, instead, my new husband and I adopted him. Which led to that particular day I had him at the vet for some routine checkup and, somehow, got to talking about rabies. 

During a recent visit to my parents’ house, Mac had zealously greeted the geriatric cat who had taken up full-time residence in a large cardboard box in the garage lined with faded, flannel blankets. When the weather had turned colder that fall, my mom had put a heating pad in there as well and my father would turn it on every evening before going to bed. The cat, who hadn’t been in a friendly mood when approached by an unknown dog, took a swipe and Mac ended up with a claw lodged in his eyebrow. I removed it and all was well. Mac, being a quick learner, never again approached another cat in such a welcoming manner. I must have been recounting this story, probably just to make nervous conversation during the appointment, when the vet started asking about the cat, its health, whether it was up on all of its shots, etc. I had no idea. This resulted in a lecture about rabies, how it is spread, the risks to the cat, my parents and society at large. 

The vet described rabies thusly: “If there was rabies all over this room and we went to lunch, by the time we got back, everything would have dried, the rabies would be dead and we’d be at no risk.”

I’m sure this was meant to be explanatory in some way, but I was perplexed. How exactly would rabies get all “over the room”? I had thought it had to originate as a bite from an infected and symptomatic animal. What was this notion about spraying? Like skunks? Shit, could you get rabies from getting sprayed by a skunk? What about smelling a skunk? Could you inhale rabies? And why, in God’s name, would we go to lunch if a skunk had sprayed rabies throughout the exam room? The vet’s lesson had raised more questions than it answered and resulted in hours of time spent Googling the matter. (This was pre-ban.) 

I, in turn, consulted my parents who assured me that the cat did not have rabies and was so old it would probably kill him to bundle him up and take him to the vet. In fact, they expected to find him dead in his blanket box every day and were shocked when he meowed good morning as they brought him breakfast. From this, I gleaned that he was now fed in the garage, which meant that raccoons and other animals were likely attracted into the garage and in direct contact with the cat, thereby increasing the risk of rabies exposure to everyone. I was not comforted. But, consistent with my parents’ predictions, the cat shortly died peacefully of old age.

Over the next several years, there was little interaction with creatures that were not domesticated. Mac was a dutiful dog that never came close to wildlife, preferring instead to stand at attention and bark at noises in the woods from a safe distance. Once a coyote was spotted on our street, but I had read in the local paper that had become commonplace as the result of a surge in the local population. Occasionally there would be a pile of deer pellets in the yard. There were always chipmunks darting in and out of the masonry retaining wall in the back. Although these instances affected me more than they did everyone else, I was not held hostage by them until, many years later.

When my kids found a fluff of fur in the back yard….