Flashback Stories: Rabies and Madness

As if it were even possible, I’ve hit a kind of lull. Work has been slow, life has gotten dull, monkeys have been illusive, and wildlife in general hasn’t been very interesting. Even the ants haven’t been bothered to mix things up and attack me somewhere private in a while. What gives?

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Man, I’m gonna regret saying that.

My point is, I don’t have much to write about. Currently, that is. As friends and coworkers alike can attest, this rarely shuts me up. So to spare them I’m going to try something I mentioned a while back: filling the gaps between posts with stories from the past. I’m going to call these “flashback posts” and do them from time to time to mix things up and keep me on a diligent writing schedule. I’ll try to keep them on-topic, or at least relatable to tropical fieldwork.

The first one is actually two separate stories, with a unifying topic: rabies.

Story One begins long ago, during my first trip to the Neotropics. I was in Guatemala, somewhere in mountain highlands known as the Ixil Triangle, doing a homestay ethnographic study in a small Ixil Maya village isolated by an armed plantation compound that “owned” the only road. One day, our guide–who became a close friend–took us exploring a cave of ancient Mayan ruins.

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Looong explanation needed here for context. Maybe I’ll get to it someday. Just, like, bear with me for now.

The site was unknown outside the community, and had never been formally studied or even seen by outsiders before. Even for the locals, it received little attention. Because of this, it housed an enormous colony of bats that included several species, most of which I wasn’t able to identify do to my inexperience and the fact that we were in a dark cave. However, one species conveniently made its identity known to me by nibbling on my ankle.

I didn’t even feel the vampire bat bite–it was only after a few seconds of standing in the middle of a whirling cloud that I felt a slight tickle of dry wings and claws. I looked down to see a little furry body perched on a trickle of my blood before it looked up and appeared to grin up at me with large bloody teeth. Then it skittered away, almost skipping on its folded wings.

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Don’t take this as an attack against bats, though. Most bats eat insects and fly like daredevils. Bats are cool.

 

I was watched very carefully over the next few days. Rabies rates among bats in that area were (and are) practically unknown, with most information anecdotal and exaggerated. Vampire bats rarely ever bite humans, but as vectors they are highly effective since they tend to drool all over the bite. Unable to reach treatment, I was simply put under close observation for signs of insomnia, hydrophobia, paranoia, and aggression. I had a lot of fun at my concerned friends’ expense.

Naturally, my symptoms came up negative and I survived long enough to flash forward several years to Puerto Rico. After a day of forestry work in an isolated field station, I was opening the courtyard door to the dorms when a mongoose leaped out of the darkness and bit my foot.

This time, I reacted with far less grace. I didn’t even know it what it was, at first–I just saw a blur and then felt furry paws on my toes just before I felt the prick of teeth. I yelled and fell into the door with a crash, waking every person in the room, if not the entire station. I continued into the dorms, uttering obscenities in multiple languages, and grabbed the poisoned spear I kept under my bed for just this occasion.

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Er…that, too, probably deserves an explanation for context.

Unfortunately, the beast had made its escape. It wasn’t until everyone had gathered on the porch and convinced me to put away my homemade chemical weapon that we determined what had happened. Someone even saw the mongoose as it ran away, and as more reports came in we determined that it had been hanging around the station for days, acting strangely.

Mongoose, while an introduced species to the island, are quite shy and elusive. However, they are known reservoirs for the rabies virus, and for one to attack a human in a building is nearly proof positive. That night, I knew I was in for a long series of painful butt shots in the days to come, not to mention an enhanced sense of unease in darkened corridors. Unable to sleep that night, I endeavored to wear thicker shoes and to make more spears.

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Didn’t stop me from exploring more bat caves, though.

The oddest thing about rabies is that it’s a psychological disease as well as a physiological one. The symptoms first appear as changes in behavior, which can bias any self-diagnosis. In fact, after my mongoose incident, coworkers wondered whether I was showing symptoms anyway, what with all my aversion to dark corners, ranting about vermin, and twitchy mannerisms, all while heavily armed and foaming at the mouth. It didn’t help that their attempts to assuage me from my revenge upon all mongoose-kind only elicited more aggression, creating a spiral of paranoia. A psychological disease, indeed.

However, with a nearly 100% untreated fatality rate, short incubation, and only an experimental medically-induced coma as treatment, rabies remains a serious disease. It can persist in any mammal population, and is one of the few diseases to cross multiple species. In the Tropics, especially, it can be a risk. Preparation is key. So is awareness. The next mongoose won’t be getting the drop on me, no sir.

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