It was 8 p.m. and dark and later than usual when I returned from doing errands. The chickens were hungry. Rushing, without looking, I reached into a 30-gallon metal trash can to scoop out some organic, soy-free chicken grain. Startled by an unexpected pinch, I jerked my hand back. A raccoon, who had been happily chowing down on the chicken feed, leaped out of the can and ran off. He was surprised, but I was shocked. As he ran off, I stared at my thumb where blood was starting to appear from two tiny tooth marks. I thought, “#@*&! Rabies!”
A family of raccoons had been hanging around the farm for a few weeks. Sometimes when I drove into the barnyard after dark, I'd see them hurrying from the tractor shed (where we keep the chicken feed) across the barnyard. Raccoons are wildly cute with thick fur and adorable masks, but their charm is no protection against rabies. Rabid animals will randomly attack other animals and people. They foam at the mouth and stagger around. My raccoon bite was clearly a defensive measure; he didn't mean anything by it. He just wanted to get away.
Later that night, a Google search told me that 25 percent of raccoons carry the rabies virus. This virus can incubate without symptoms for up to a year, which means even if the raccoon that bit me wasn't rabid at the time, he still could be a carrier.
There is no test for rabies except by observation of the animal or by autopsy. My raccoon had made himself unavailable for either method. My other option was to get post-bite immunization shots. But if farmers rushed off to the doctor for every injury, we'd scarcely have time for the back-breaking labor we're so fond of. Besides, it seemed like a minor bite, not worthy of medical attention. Nevertheless, my disinclination to get treatment was soon set straight by sobering information.
Dining at a friend's house, I met Ann, a health professional who communicates with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). She told me that people are still dying painful deaths from rabies. In one recent case, a man who had a live-and-let-live attitude toward the hundreds of bats in his attic must have been bitten without knowing it. Or maybe he knew but didn't realize that bats generally carry the rabies virus. In any case, he contracted rabies and endured two weeks of agony before he expired.
Ann, who regularly processes rabies claims, also told me that treatment can cost up to $8,000! You can imagine how an uninsured person might choose thrift over caution. But I have Medicare, which would be sure to pay some of it. So rather than playing Russian roulette with my life, I decided, no matter what the cost, to get the post-bite shots.
Twenty years ago a bite victim would receive a series of 10 painful shots to the stomach, but now only six shots to the arm are required — three on the first visit and the rest staggered over 10 days. None of them were painful.
Of course, the best protection is immunization before the bite. That's what I do for my livestock; each animal receives one $10 shot that is good for a year. But humans require more than one shot. The nurse at Walk-In Care told me that, because humans are more delicate than livestock, a full dose given at one time would stress our systems. So the necessary amount of vaccine must be spread over several days.
The farm and I are rabies-free. The family of raccoons is gone. Maybe after chomping on my hand, they decided there was tastier food elsewhere.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs and other local products. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.