If you started to read this post because the title promised the sort of droll tale you expect from John Cleese or Stephen Fry I’m sorry to disappoint you! It’s a story about a gentle dog walk that turned into a rabid animal attack.
You might ask how I knew it was rabid. Was it tested for the rabies virus? [No] Have I encountered a rabid animal before? [No] I only had symptoms to go on, as well as familiarity with normal groundhog behavior. They often visit our yard to check if the veggie garden is ready for a nocturnal raid, but whenever I encounter them they run, and always in the opposite direction. So, what happened this morning?
I let the two dogs off the leash in a large meadow bordering the historic area of Jamestown Island, which we visit most weeks of the year. While the dogs were scampering a hundred yards ahead I noticed a large ball of brown fur in the grass and wandered over to examine it. I assumed it was a dead animal that scavengers hadn’t found yet, because I passed two dozen black vultures gorging on the carcass of a road-kill deer thirty minutes earlier.
When I was less than six feet away and bending over for a closer look at the body it suddenly unrolled and sprung to its feet in obvious fury, baring its incisors and making a strange gurgling sound. It was a large groundhog in a very bad way. Its coat was unkempt, not sleek from grooming, and its short tail looked like a chimney brush instead of a bushy duster. This groundhog had been fighting.
I expected it would run away but it ran at me, nipping at my loose trouser leg. It was crazy! When I stepped back it came again and again. I started to run until it flagged, and then stopped to take its photo with my cell phone from a cautious distance. It was a pathetic sight, and if there was a heavy object at hand I would have killed it humanely.
I hurried over to warn the ranger station, passing dozens of kids who had poured out of a bus to tour the historic area, but first I gathered and leashed the dogs. Had they encountered the beast I would be telling another story because one or more of our trio would have been bitten.
This first encounter with a symptomatic rabies victim will remind me in future to beware of mammals behaving uncharacteristically, and I mean any mammal because all are vulnerable to rabies.
“Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow on his shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was business-like usage in his steady gaze” (Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend).
Scavengers get a bad rap. In Dicken’s story, Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie made a living from scavenging corpses floating in the Thames. They rummaged pockets for valuables before giving the bodies up to the authorities. But one day he found a body with papers identifying it as John Harmon, a missing man, and Gaffer was accused of his murder. Living in squalor and in thickets of thieves, scavengers soon fall under suspicion of crime.
In Tudor England a skawager was a customs collector (a more honorable occupation today, although it still causes sinking feelings in a traveler waved to their desk). Over time, the word scavenger emerged as the name for any kind of street cleaner. In removing waste and carrion they performed useful services, although it was not realized until mid-Victorian times that they were helping to safeguard the public from epidemic diseases.
I remember scavengers when I was growing up in London. Those so-called “totters” were easily recognized with their horse and cart and hand bells or from their ringing voices,
“Rags and bones! Rags and bones!” We didn’t have much household waste in the 1950s
because post-war austerity still held a vice-grip on domestic budgets. Most of our stuff was collected by “dustmen” (garbage collectors), but some choice items were saved for the rag-and-bone man, like the remains of the Sunday roast joint which we were told would be rendered by some miracle into glue or soap. Children liked to stroke the horse stamping outside their homes while the man loaded his cart, but their parents often called them indoors until the ragamuffin went away.
In the BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son (1962-74), Harold and his irascible father Albert are in the business together, although not in any other sense together. Harold aspired to a better life, deriding Albert as “a dirty old man,” but his pretensions to middle class respectability in a rag-and-bone yard always let him down, especially with women. We laughed at the show from the comfort of our living room, and the comedy crossed the Atlantic to become Sanford and Son. It is harder for the Millennial Generation to understand the rag-and-bone trade because, after four centuries of keeping our streets cleaner and freer of disease, it had almost vanished by 1980. Its last representative in London, Alf Masterson, died in 2007.
Animal scavengers don’t enjoy any better reputation than rag-and-bone men. Hyenas, raccoons, rats, flies, dung beetles, et cetera are all regarded as vermin. And although birds are more generally loved than most other animals, vultures are regarded with particular loathing.
Riding the thermals, vultures are aerial marvels that catch the slightest uplift even on cold days; and to watch a condor hanging over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a memory to savor long after the vacation. In the eastern and southern USA turkey vultures and black vultures patrol the countryside from several hundred feet scouting for carrion
with their sharp eyes, although it is often the turkey vulture’s exceptional sense of smell that catches the first savory whiff of a meal. Where it dives its brethren quickly follow. Black vultures are the more sociable of the two species, but both are intelligent like that other carrion-eating family, the crows, but vultures are more reviled. The sight of a venue (the collective noun for a vulture gathering) around a carcass with their naked heads bobbing in and out of the gore looks revolting, although we don’t have the same reaction to the look-alike heads of wild turkeys. Baldness makes hygienic sense for this kind of diner, and it also helps to control body temperature in hot sun. Despite a scuzzy appearance, they are finicky about preening because their lives depend on their plumage.
These “buzzards” have become more common since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) which protects them from casual shooting, and they have spread north of the Mason-Dixon Line to breed in Canada. Perhaps they are responding to global warming, but certainly to food supplies.
According to the National Highway Traffic Administration the numbers of white-tailed deer have increased from half a million in 1900 to perhaps 15-20 million today, and many of them stalk suburban gardens and public parks close to roads. Every year 1.5 million vehicular accidents with deer are reported, which cause 150 human fatalities on average, 10,000
injuries, and a billion dollars in costs. Vultures have often cleaned the road-kill before a highway maintenance crew arrives to dispose of the carcass. They are not always so welcome, particularly at landfills and around dumpsters backing onto schools and shopping centers, but they always provide services gratis.
Vultures in India and Pakistan are not faring so well, and some are in crisis. Populations have crashed by 98% from consuming carcasses of livestock treated with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac. Despite bans on the veterinary drug, their numbers have not bounced back and the costs of losing these scavengers are tragic and still being counted. Carrion often carries disease organisms normally destroyed in the guts of vultures but which survive passage through feral dogs and rats, which become carriers and spread rabies, anthrax, brucellosis, plague, and dangerous strains of E. coli. Bites from these animals are now even more serious, and carcasses left to rot contaminate water supplies, adding to human misery and fatalities. The Parsi (Zoroastrians) mourn the vultures that used to consume their dead relatives in funeral rites, and we should grieve the loss for many reasons.
The habits of vultures have barred them from ever becoming symbols of a nation, although the American bald eagle is a part-time scavenger. Sometimes an eagle can be seen crouching over road-kill, and even in vulture company. Benjamin Franklin was unhappy when the bald eagle was chosen for the Great Seal of the USA, and in 1784 wrote his daughter Sally:
“For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…too lazy to fish for himself… (but) the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and…though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
If the ways of bald eagles made them ill-suited to be national symbols the British lion is also a national embarrassment. But many top predators—lions, tigers, white sharks, and even piranhas—will take carrion given an opportunity. And our prehistoric ancestors probably had few qualms about carving left-over flesh from beasts that were preyed on by other animals, which brings me back to our species as the top waste-maker and recycler.
Adam Minter, the son of a Minneapolis scrap dealer, describes how the humble rag-and-bone trade has evolved into a vast and hugely profitable industry (Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade). Canny businessmen have always known that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In Our Mutual Friend, the corpse that Gaffer Hexam recovered from the murky Thames was misidentified as John Harmon, the heir to a fortune made by his estranged father from collecting garbage from London streets. That reminds me of a sage saying I often heard in Yorkshire, “Where there’s muck there’s brass (money).”