This "Best of Bogue" column originally was published on July 25, 1997.
Dear Gary: We are hoping you can solve a family mystery.
A couple of years ago, while camping at Del Valle, my daughter attempted to pick up a squirrel and was bitten. It wasn't a deep bite but it did break the skin. We spoke with a ranger and I was told that I needed to take her to the emergency room because of the danger of rabies. At the hospital they looked at the bite and gave her a tetanus shot.
They told us you can't get rabies from squirrels because they are so small that if they did contract rabies they would die very quickly and not infect anyone. Everyone I have told this story to is amazed because they never heard that size had anything to do with rabies.
Who was right, the ranger or the doctor? I always thought you could get rabies from bats and they're pretty small. What's the truth about rabies and how it is spread?
The McLeod Family
Dear McLeods: Whenever someone discusses rabies, it seems like that game where people sit in a circle around a campfire and whisper a story into the ear of the person next to them.
The more ears the story gets whispered into, the more screwed up it gets.
The story you heard at the hospital is a classic example of this kind of confusion and misinformation.
Rabies tests performed over the years on California rodents such as mice and squirrels show they are extremely low-risk and rarely considered a cause for concern unless the rodent that bit you was acting abnormally aggressive and running around trying to bite everyone.
Most researchers feel this is because the rodents, being so small, probably don't survive the bites of rabid skunks, foxes, coyotes, or raccoons to pass the disease along to somebody else.
Even though rodent bites are considered low-risk, each needs to be evaluated on its own merits because rabies is a fatal disease and someone's life could be at risk. The ranger was correctly following that policy.
The rabies virus is normally transmitted to another animal or human through a bite. This can happen when the disease reaches a stage where the virus is in the infected animal's saliva. The virus can also be spread by licking, via scratches and through the absorbent tissues of the mouth, nose and eyes. (Rabid puppies have spread the disease by licking their owners' faces.)
The moral here is don't try to pick up or touch squirrels or any wild animal.
Dear Gary: Your recent item about mongooses vs. mongeese reminded me of this anecdote illustrating the writer's life:
An author, working on a new novel, wrote: "She looked into the garden and saw two mongooses."
Mongooses? That didn't look right. This was the days of typewriters, so the author threw away the sheet of paper, put in a new one and wrote: "She looked into the garden and saw two mongeese."
Mongeese? Mongooses? Neither one looked correct.
So a third sheet of paper was rolled into the typewriter and the author wrote the final version:
"She looked into the garden and saw one mongoose. Immediately, she saw a second mongoose."
Dear Dan: It's tough being an animal writer, but somebody has got to do it.
On my next vacation I think I'll lock my loquacious cat, Tut, in my office, with the computer turned on. There ought to be enough material for a column or two.