A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy


Paperback, 275 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $16 | purchase


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Book Summary

Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy's book charts the history, science and cultural mythology of rabies. Before the vaccine, the disease caused fatal brain infections and inspired depictions of monsters, werewolves, vampires and zombies.

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Excerpt: Rabid

Ours is a domesticated age. As human civilization has spread itself out over the march of millennia, displacing wildlife as we go, we have found it advisable to strip the animal kingdom of its armies, to decommission its officers. Some of these erstwhile adversaries we have hunted to extinction, or nearly so. Others we relegate to zoos, confine in child-friendly safari parks. The balance we shunt to the margins as we clear their land for ourselves — erecting our own sprawling habitats on the ruins of theirs, naming our cul-de-sacs for whatever wilderness we dozed to pave them.

Peer through news reports, though, and one can find pockets of resistance, as if some ancient animal instinct were furtively reasserting itself. Consider the kamikaze bobcat in Cottonwood, Arizona, that set out on a rampage one recent March evening, menacing a worker outside a Pizza Hut and then sauntering into a bar, sending patrons onto the pool table, mauling the one who dared to snap a picture on his phone. Or the frenzied otter in Vero Beach, Florida, at a waterfront golf community called Grand Harbor that gnawed three residents, one of them while out on the links. Or the enraged beaver in the Loch Raven Reservoir, in the genteel exurban sprawl north of Baltimore, that cruelly interrupted the summertime reverie of four swimmers and was deterred from devouring them only when the husband of one victim pulled it from her thigh and smashed it with a large rock.

The sheer tenacity: that is the truly chilling element in all these tales. "What disturbs me," remarked one Connecticut man to the local news, regarding the raccoon he had lately beaten to death with a hammer, "is I smashed his mouth off, I smashed his teeth in, but he still wanted to continue in the attack mode. I was actually terrified at the resilience of this animal." In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on a sleepy street backing up to the Housatonic River, a fox attacked twice in an eight-hour span. In the first incident, a man struck the fox multiple times with the lid to his barbecue smoker. Yet still the fox returned earlier the next morning, biting the girl next door; it took twenty minutes for the man and the girl's sister to pry the fox off her leg, before the man could knock the fox unconscious and then choke out its life.

Nearly any species can be afflicted. Arizona officials were recently called to the scene after a dog was attacked by a mad peccary, a piglike creature whose residence in the Southwest had until that point been considered largely peaceable. In Robbins, North Carolina, it was a skunk that beset the pet Pekingese of David Sanders, who was forced to watch the two creatures battle it out for the better part of an hour. In Decatur County, Georgia, a donkey fell prey to the madness and bit its owner on the hand. In Imperial, Nebraska, the afflicted animal was literally a lamb, part of a child's 4-H project gone terribly, almost biblically awry. Some primeval force must truly be at work when the lamb can be made into a lion.

The agent of all these acts of possession is, of course, a virus. It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills virtually 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans. Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal. Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation increases. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness — because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.

If this sounds like a horror movie, we should not be surprised, for it is a scenario bound up into our very concept of horror. Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself. That is, it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins — for the rabid bite is the visible symbol of the animal infecting the human, of an illness in a creature metamorphosing demonstrably into that same illness in a person. Today, we understand that more than half our new diseases (60 percent, by a recent tally in Nature) are zoonotic — that is, originating in animal populations — and our widespread fear of the worst of these (swine flu, AIDS, West Nile, Ebola) has been colored by our knowledge of their bestial origins. Yet until the twentieth century, humans had no idea that so many of their illnesses derived from nonhuman hosts. No microscope was required to see the possession take place. A mad animal bit; a mad man appeared; each would die a terrible death. The madness could lurk within any mammal, even in — especially in — the most domesticated and loyal of all, the dog.

As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. Even during the twentieth century, after Pasteur's invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a foot-long syringe into the stomach. (In fact, today's vaccine entails four shots, and not particularly deep in the arm.)

It's almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror — even as it still terrifies us in the present day.

Excerpted from Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Copyright 2012 by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Viking.

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