Posted tagged ‘hay bales in NYC parks’

Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels (and Rats)?

January 20, 2010

Katrinka of the frozen north solved the mystery of the hay bales: “to protect the trees and rock outcroppings from the attack of sliding little children on toboggans and sleds.”  I’m not sure about toboggans in Riverside Park, but we do have a range of sliding objects, including Flexible Flyers, plastic garbage can lids and cardboard boxes. And, sure enough, the hay bales are at the base of two prime sledding hills. So, thank you, Katrinka!

With one mystery solved, a new one presents. Rabies is raging through Manhattan’s raccoon population. Should we worry about our squirrels?

Bagel Brunch for New York Squirrel

I mean, what if a rabid raccoon bites a squirrel? Do squirrels get rabies? Can they transmit it?

NYC Rat by laverrue /Flickr.com

Worse, and please forgive me for putting the image in your heads, what about rabid rats?

Well, dear reader, knowing these questions have been keeping you up at night, I’ve scoured the web for answers.

All mammals can get rabies. The disease is almost always transmitted by a bite or scratch, but any way you can figure out to make contact between your blood stream or mucous membranes and a rabid animal’s infected saliva or brain tissue will generally do the trick.  Squirrels, rats and other small mammals can, and do, get rabies. Yet rabid rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) are very rare. Why?

Well, there seems to be no definitive answer.  The best explanation comes from Dr. Jean S. Smith at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control.

Encounter with a Carnivore (Randy Son of Robert/Flickr.com)

In 2001, Dr. Smith told the New York Times that “rats probably would not survive an encounter with an infected carnivore. They are food for carnivores, and so would not be around to transmit the disease to people.” Ditto for squirrels and bunnies.

Dr. Smith says the shape of a rodent’s mouth, or some unidentified factor, may impede transmission. And she maintains that since rats don’t fight much among themselves (and squirrels even less), their behavior doesn’t lead to the bites that transmit infection within the species.

photo by Valerie Everett/Flickr.com

Well, okay, but unusually aggressive behavior is characteristic of the disease. Once an animal is symptomatic, the pacific nature of its species may no longer be relevant.  There’s at least one documented case of a rabid squirrel that was captured and tested only after an unprovoked bite on a human.

And what about those rare rabid squirrels? Why did they survive the bite? Scientists speculate they may have been infected by bats, which are common carriers of rabies. Since a bat’s tiny teeth would not cause serious damage, those squirrels survived to develop symptoms.

Tiny Bat, Big Teeth by Wilson B /Flickr.com

Next up on the rabies agenda, the question you’ve all been waiting for: what is NYC’s policy on vaccinating its raccoons and conserving the remainder of the population?  I’m planning a visit soon to Central Park to see if the Urban Park Rangers can answer some questions. Stay tuned.


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