Mrs. G. had been here a long time – long enough that the road she lived on bore her last name. Or, more accurately, that of her long dead husband. So she probably felt that she, not the fox, owned the place.
But there he was again, just like the previous three mornings, wandering over her grass, not spooked at all when she tapped on the kitchen window.
“Shoo! Go away!” she said in her loud voice, holding the phone receiver away from her mouth for the moment.
“Sorry, Dear,” she said into the phone, “I had to frighten away a pesky fox in the yard.”
“Oh, like most of them, he’s got a red coat and a grey trail. Well, yes, it could be ‘she’. I can’t tell from here. What’s that? You know my hearing’s bad, could you please say again?”
She watched the animal meander toward the woods again, at the far end of her grass, but it stumbled before it got to the trees, and, in struggling to regain balance, turned toward the house.
“That’s very sweet, Dear, but I’ve already told you, I’m quite happy here, in this house your father and I built, on the land your grandfather claimed for ranching. My hip is healing just fine right here. I just couldn’t live in that city where you are – too many dangers like auto accidents and -- what are they called? -- ‘gang-hangers’. And the TV said just yesterday: people cheat you in the stores there. I’m just fine right here.
“But you can come any time and bring that cute red-haired grandson of mine. He can play with some of my animals – the chickens, Fluffy the rabbit - - - Shoo!
“What’s that? No, no. It’s that fox. I want him to leave before he scares my cat to death. You know, his hair is almost the same color as your son’s. He’s very beautiful. Just a little clumsy. Think about July 4th weekend, ok?”
She replaced the receiver and hobbled on her cane to the sliding glass door that looked out over the lawn.
“Here kitty. Where are you? Watch out for the fox,” she sang to her cat as she opened the door for her feline companion.
Suddenly, there was the fox, right at the door. Startled, she stepped back, and almost lost her balance.
“Not on my new hip,” she thought, and protected the surgical work of that nice doctor from the city down in the valley by catching herself with her cane.
When she looked up again, that fox had just strolled right through the door, into her house. What nerve! There he stood, on her nice clean carpet, rolling his head left and right as if trying to see clearly.
“Stand up straight!” she admonished the animal, much to her own surprise. What was it to her if he wanted to stand there with his legs too far apart for a self-respecting fox?
It slowly raised its head toward the sound of her voice and she saw something abnormal – and very distant – in its eyes. A string of saliva dangled from its mouth, and fell onto her carpet.
“Look what you did!” she scolded him. “Well, that’s enough. Out you go,” and she poked at him with her cane to push him back out into the yard where he belonged.
Snap! Its teeth chomped onto her cane so quickly, she nearly lost her grip. It began to shake the stick with its neck muscles and head, but she held on.
“You let go!” she yelled.
Saliva ran down the cane, dribbled onto the carpet, and sprayed into the air when the animal shook its head.
After a few seconds of violent head shaking, the fox stopped moving, re-set its legs to regain its balance, and just held the cane tight in its jaws, its eyes focused somewhere far away.
“You don’t belong here!” she scolded it. “And you’re acting very badly for a fox. You get out!”
She disliked getting upset.
She pushed the cane hard, and it rammed into the fox’s throat. It made a gargling noise and staggered backward, fell onto its side, but quickly, clumsily, struggled to its feet, and turned toward the open doorway. It bumped head-first into the glass door, but a swat on its rump from the cane drove it left, and it staggered out into the yard.
Mrs. G. slammed the glass door closed and locked it.
She called me to report the encounter. “I hear the Health Department is the place to report unusual things,” she said. “Otherwise I would have waited ‘til my appointment with my orthopedist.”
“I’m glad you didn’t wait,” I told her. “Close all the doors, and stay inside. I’m going to call the Animal Trapper.”
It took the Trapper an hour to get up there, but much less time to find the fox and catch it. He hadn’t wandered too far. While it’s head was making its way through the delivery service to the laboratory, I was examining Mrs. G.
“Did it bite you?”
“Heavens, no. I kept him away with my cane.”
“Did any of its saliva get on the cane?”
“Oh, yes. All over it. But I wiped it off.”
“What did you use to wipe it off?” I asked, fearing I already knew the answer.
“Well, these of course,” she held up her hands. “And his drool made the carpet all wet.”
“Did you clean that up, too?”
“Of course,” she looked at me as if I’d asked whether she had been breathing today.
Her hands were the thick, hard hands of a woman who’d been splitting her own firewood and building her own chicken coops for 65 years. Her palms had deep cracks, tattooed black by time and work.
When she came back to my office for her third rabies shot, she showed me a photo of her grandson.
“I’m thinking of taking my daughter’s invitation to move in with them. I’ll miss the ranch but she said I could bring my cat.”
“Good,” I said to keep her talking as I pushed the needle a bit harder than I have to for most people. She had tough skin.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad in the city after all.”
* * * *
If you were a rabies virus, just trying to find food and raise kids, some warm blooded animal would be your planet. It would be in your own best interest – and your offspring’s – to keep your host planet healthy, so that you and yours could have a long life there.
But, if you were, in fact, a rabies virus, that’s not the way your genetic coding would have you play it.
You would take a boat ride on an ocean of saliva from, say planet “fox” where you’d been establishing your dominance, and you’d ride that saliva down into the wound made by the fox’s teeth. Suddenly, you’d find yourself on (or “in”) a new planet, injected there with the saliva on your old host planet’s teeth.
Deep within the warm, moist interior of the new host, you’d slowly search for the tissue you like best – a nerve. Small, thin, like a tiny wire, you’d attach yourself to it and make a home. You’d reproduce. Your offspring would crawl, slowly, up the nerve, to bigger, thicker nerves, all humming with electricity sending and receiving signals.
Unfortunately for your host, this propagation and up-the-nervous-system progression would cause damage in its wake.
Ultimately, your descendents would reach their “promised land” in this planet: the host’s brain. There, a flurry of reproduction and associated destruction would wreak havoc on your host, and it would become rapidly ill. Like climate change, the planet you and your descendents colonized would become uncomfortably warmer (fever), and stop repairing itself and growing (i.e. stop eating).
Your host planet would be dying, carrying you and your rabies virus babies with it. Your only chance to escape sure doom and extinction would be … to hop ship. Find another host. Another planet.
So, in addition to making the brain you inhabit sick, you would also make it - - - crazy. Aggressive. Then you’d scoot down the nerves into the host’s salivary glands, and get ready for the Big Flood. Ready, like Noah, to ride the waters to a new land. A new host.
And start all over again.
Well designed, don’t you agree?
We in Public Health traditionally say that the most successful parasites (including viruses in this global category of “parasite”) are those that don’t kill their host, but live long periods in a mutually balanced partnership. Like Herpes virus or the Tuberculosis bacterium.
So the Rabies virus should be viewed by those of us in Public Health as one of the most spectacular failures as “parasite” since almost no host ever survives the full-blown infection. But, with its creative answer to the problem, inducing the dying host to transfer the virus to a new, healthy host, you have to hand it to the little guy. He’s definitely watching out for himself quite effectively, at the expense of his host planet. At the expense of us.