Rabid fox

Hydrophobia, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

If you read today’s installment of the Morning Porch, you may have been led to envy my father’s good fortune in having such a rare encounter with a gray fox, a creature of generally reclusive and crepuscular habits. That’s how I felt, too, until we spotted it again in mid-afternoon, up in the corner of the field. Mom was watching a small flock of wild turkeys through her binoculars, when all of a sudden the fox jumped out from behind a clump of dried goldenrod. The birds moved away from it, but didn’t really spook, and the fox walked a short distance and disappeared into the weeds again. So we went up to get a closer look, and the video shows what we found. In the morning, it had acted normally aside from its lack of fear, but now it had blood all over its muzzle, presumably from attacking something, and was clearly in the advanced stages of rabies.

I went back down to the house and read up on the disease. Here’s what the Wikipedia had to say:

The virus has a bullet-like shape…

The route of infection is usually, but not necessarily, by a bite. In many cases the infected animal is exceptionally aggressive, may attack without provocation, and exhibits otherwise uncharacteristic behaviour.

The period between infection and the first flu-like symptoms is normally two to twelve weeks, but can be as long as two years. Soon after, the symptoms expand to slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium. The production of large quantities of saliva and tears coupled with an inability to speak or swallow are typical during the later stages of the disease; this can result in “hydrophobia”, where the victim has difficulty swallowing because the throat and jaw become slowly paralyzed, shows panic when presented with liquids to drink, and cannot quench his or her thirst. The disease itself was also once commonly known as hydrophobia, from this characteristic symptom. The patient “foams at the mouth” because they cannot swallow their own saliva for days and it gathers in the mouth until it overflows.

Death almost invariably results two to ten days after the first symptoms…

When I was a kid, I remember being terrified of rabies. Mom tells me that’s because, when I was four or five years old and we were still living in Maine, there was a bad outbreak of it. One day a rabid red fox staggered into our front yard, and she kept us inside all day and for a couple days thereafter.

I went back up to the corner of the field with my arthritic old .22 and scoured the area, but the fox was gone. It occurred to me that the last time I’d used the gun was to shoot a house cat with advanced feline leukemia some eight years ago. As it turned out, though, I didn’t have to be the executioner this time, because a few minutes later one of our hunter friends showed up, a guy named Jeff who lives close by and gets off work at 3:00. He had a much more effective rifle than mine — no surprise there — and we all went to look for the fox. I heard a robin scolding in the woods, followed the sound and discovered the poor thing lying a few feet off one of the trails. Its head was up, and it was still working its jaws and making a slight spitting-coughing noise.

There are times when the boom of a rifle is a very welcome sound, and this was one of them. I returned with a shovel a little later at my mother’s urging and buried it three feet down. This is the hungriest time of year; why risk infecting anything else? But it’s a hard thing to throw clay on something so beautiful.

A little later, Mom stopped by to say that a few coltsfoot and one purple crocus were in bloom — our very first flowers of the year.

13 Replies to “Rabid fox”

  1. Oooh, this made me feel incredibly sad. They are such lovely creatures; we see them even in the city sometimes.

    (That Finnish stock boys link was hilarious. Made me think of ‘when the cat’s away, the mice do play’ … though I imagine this was okayed by management.)

  2. Poor beast. I remember being terrified about rabies as a kid. Britain was rabies free, and there were always scare stories about if it crosses the channel, there was no vaccine then, and we were told it would decimate our wildlife and all our dogs and cats would have to be put down… something of an exaggeration in fact. There’s very little in France now.
    Glad you were able to help it out of it.

  3. I was terrified of rabies too when I was young and we don’t even have it here ever. Awful to have to shoot a dying wild animal, but sometimes it needs to be done. My partner once killed a rabbit dying from myxamytosis, so sad even though we knew the quick death was better than the slow lingering alternative.

    I saw a beautiful red fox yesterday in the park in the middle of Edinburgh.

  4. Very sad. As I understand it, the eponymous fear of water develops as a (rapidly) learned response, because attempting to drink produces painful spasms.

  5. How weirdly fascinating: simultaneously horrifying and hypnotic. Just last week I’d seen a healthy red fox dart across the road with some sort of prey (squirrel or rabbit?) in its mouth. How different a healthy fox is from an obviously sick one.

  6. Man, that was hard to watch. But at the same time it made me think of how brave animals can be, fighting to get past the pain and fear and live on. What made me saddest I think was that such dying is done completely alone and so there cannot be anyone there to comfort the poor creature. I don’t think I could have borne watching the video if there had been sound…

  7. Believe me, it was hard to photograph and write about, too. I was going to try and let the video speak for itself, but I knew people would have questions. I did. I worried that I’d be exploiting the suffering of the animal by putting it on display like this. But I think it’s important to keep this sort of thing in mind as a corrective to the romantic idealization of nature, which is all too easy to fall prey to here in the temperate zone where the number of such horrible diseases is still relatively limited. Nature is NOT your loving mother.

    Thanks for all the comments. It occurred to me also as I watched the fox that this is perhaps where the zombie meme comes from.

  8. Thanks Dave. That was difficult, but instructive. I’ve often thought “rabies” when seeing an animal acting out of character, but haven’t ever seen one this far gone.

    I didn’t realize the reason behind the “foaming at the mouth” before either, but now it makes sense.

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