Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Phoby Cat

A trip back home, to the Great Plains of North America, and I am still reminded of skunks.  For the long flight I took along a copy Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy's book "Rabid" and learned that the skunks were likely the most feared animal by Plains frontiersman.  Not the wolf, grizzly bear, or mountain lion, but the humble if not somewhat aeromatically inclined skunk.

Canadian fur trappers called the skunk "l'enfant du diable" or the "child of the devil."  The great president and outdoors-man Teddy Roosevelt once wrote that "there is no wild beast in the West, no matter what size and ferocity, so dreaded by old plainsmen as this seemingly harmless little beast."

The reason for this fear was not the skunk's odor, but its reputation as a carrier of rabies.  Skunks were not the only mammal to carry rabies, but early stories tell of nearly every person being bitten by a skunk contracting rabies (which at the time was nearly 100% fatal).  Such stories were not only brandished around campfires, but permanently attached to the early pioneer name for the skunk of "Phoby cat," referring to the tell-tale signs of hydrophobia that precede frothing of the mouth and eventual death.

It became widely believed that any skunk so bold as to approach a person or come into a field camp was rabid.  However, since that time we have learned that skunks are rarely rabid, and that today an urban skunk who enters a person's back yard is more likely habituated than diseased.  Indeed the few rare cases of rabies when they do occur in the US over the past 50 years have been primarily associated with bats and even raccoons.  The latter being the focus of large-scale vaccination programs.