Wednesday, August 13, 2008


When I was planning to write a book on animal control, like twenty years ago, I started watching for books about dogs and stashing them to read some day. One was a little paperback originally written in the Seventies by a pair of English authors, David Anne and Anthony Fowles, called simply “Rabid.” I’ve never read “Cujo” by Stephen King, which I think is a later book. I sometimes wonder how many times American writers get their ideas from English or Canadian books. (I can think of several echoes.) Before the Internet came along, it was hard to get books from both countries plus Australia because of trade agreements. Economics can raise barriers more effective than border inspectors. Or could.

The basic idea of “Rabid” is very simple: that people simply lose or never grasp why some laws are made and feel free to evade or ignore them to suit their own convenience and preferences. In fact, my own concern about rabies (because my cats catch bats which are “presumed to carry rabies unless otherwise certified”) is brushed off by local officials, even veterinarians and even though we are officially a rabies quarantine area because of other rabid wild animals, like raccoons. If one wants a bat tested, one will have to pay for it. At first I was very worried and certainly got rabies shots for my cats, but then I gradually sort of absorbed their attitudes and needed the money for other things. Anyway, the cats are hard to catch if they see the carrier cage come out and they wail for the entire thirty mile drive to the veterinary office.

The heroine of this novel called “Rabid” is even more self-centered and willing to cut corners than I am. The plot of the story entwines rabies with sex. I don’t think they meant to imply that rabies IS sex, but they may have meant to say something about selfish, narcissistic behavior. (I read that narcissism is again popular as a pop diagnosis for uncooperative people, but does it ever really become irrelevant?) A rather insecurely married couple, unable to have children, are very attached to their dog, which dies. Another, very ugly but “woofly,” mongrel shows up in their summer vacation villa in France and the woman wants it. Then they are presented with the problem of getting it through the relentless quarantine that has kept England rabies-free for many years. (Yellowstone bison with brucellosis being the opposite problem -- keeping them IN.)

The couple has a friend, a childhood dear friend of the husband’s, who is a bachelor with a boat. The wife sees that if he nips across the channel, they can send the dog back with him. She goes along for the ride. Yes, a “double-meaning” ride. Of course, the dog DOES have rabies and the ensuing pandemonium and destruction is ghastly. The writing team low-balls the story by killing off sympathetic characters, children, and sweet innocent dogs. Some rats also die and, by the end of the story, some human rats. It’s all excessive and pathetic.

Descriptions of the progress of the disease are gruesome but, as far as I could tell, fairly accurate. When people in the book are slow to understand just what rabies means, the authorities bring in a movie to show them in which a man from a Middle-Eastern country where there is still rabies in the dog population dies strapped down on an examination table. When our Multnomah County dog license sellers became over-lenient about making sure every dog was licensed, I showed a similar movie. Dog licenses require proof of rabies immunization, because a high percentage of immune domestic dogs not only protects the individual dog but also is a buffer for the community as a whole. One of the strong reasons for licensing dogs is to get them inoculated, as well as returning them home and helping to finance animal control.

The movie I borrowed to show was from a doctor affiliated with the Oregon Health Sciences University research hospital in Portland who had acquired it in hopes that it would help him understand how to treat a boy afflicted with rabies. It’s an oddity that it’s wealthy people who breach the quarantine laws. In this case a man with a private plane flew his son and his son’s dog up from Mexico. The dog was rabid and bit the son. The situation wasn’t realized soon enough for effective early treatment and the boy became one of the first and the few to survive the full onslaught of the brain virus, because of this doctor. The boy was on full life support and I never did hear whether there were permanent consequences to his mind. (The book never addresses the need to kill a suspected rabid animal without shooting it in the head, which prevents proper diagnosis.)

The movie had been made in the Thirties in Chicago (when the new movie industry was centered there) and the victims were several toddlers who craved and cried out for milk from the nurses -- wearing rubber gauntlets up to their elbows -- held for them in cups, but then attacked and struck the cups away. The movies were silent, filmed on the roof of the hospital for the sake of the bright sunlight. The children were black. Children are more often bitten and rabies is more common in low income parts of town.

By the end of the book, not only people had died but every animal in a twelve mile radius had been killed -- including a famous pack of fox-hunting dogs and a fine race horse plus many beloved pets. About the only leavening element is the loving relationship between the original offending man and his father-in-law, who blames himself for raising a girl who could not think of anything but getting her own way.

No doubt about it: this is a sensational book, but it certainly does have a point to make about human irrationality about both pets and disease. It could have used a bit more rational discussion but it is certainly a good entering wedge for such a discussion. Often, politically, it is the sensational, sentimental and lurid that finally gets people’s attention enough for them to react at all.

This book has several other titles, such as, “The Day of the Mad Dogs.” August reading, I suppose.

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