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May 22, 2007

Monkey dies of plague at Denver zoo



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Not disturbing at all. The Mountain West has been an active plague area for years.
It was a routing announcement at outdoor events in the Society for Creative Anachronism (a medieval recreation group) in New Mexico, which borders Colorado.

Sounds like the New Mexico S.C.A. goes in for more period detail than the Texas version. At the Rennaisance Faires I've attended, there have been lots of nobility, very few peasants or serfs and not a plague-ridden flagellant in sight.

Not disturbing at all. The Mountain West has been an active plague area for years.

And everyone's okay with that?

A couple of people died of the plague in the Denver area ten or so years ago; they traced it to a nearby colony of prairie dogs. Very scary sounding, but for whatever reason its never gone beyond isolated cases like this.

When it's illustrated with a photo of Mitch McConnell?

...and carries internal clues that the Posties have learned to write ("chances that a human could be infected is considered minimal") the way Bush talks?

Chances is it's considered disturbing.

With kind regards,
Dog, &c.
searching for home

Ummm...The plague warning was serious. The mountain west has a lot of plague out there.

I betcha that was an illegal immigrant monkey. First leprosy, now plague.

There is a certain background level of plague in the western US all the time. It arrived on the West Coast sometime around 1900 or so and spread as far as the Great Plains at least. As long as it’s confined to wild rodents (ground squirrels, prairie dogs, voles, etc.), it’s referred to as “sylvatic” plague, but it’s the same thing that killed our medieval ancestors: the bacterium Yersinia pestis. People occasionally get it, and there have been a few incidences of human to human transmission in the western US, but we don’t live with rats the way we used to, and there are effective antibiotics and a vaccine for plague. Rodent populations are monitored and sometimes areas are posted. I would not picnic in a posted area, and I would definitely leave sick ground squirrels alone.

Plague infects and hammers prairie dogs and, sadly also, the most critically endangered mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret, which depends exclusively on prairie dogs. Last I heard they were working on a bait vaccine for the ferret, but I don’t know if it’s proved effective.

More info (pdf) ">here

We're not OK with it Lindsay, but we have terrorists under our beds to worry about.

Doxycycline, the "tickicide" (which kills Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever's causative agent, and cures Lyme disease, among other tick-borne diseases) works just fine.


I have to agree with cfrost and others: Yersinia pestis (plague) in many areas is an infrequent, but naturally occurring gut microbe, especially when rodent populations are reasonably sized. Other than exterminating naturally-occurring rodent populations, there's not much to do. Most strains of plague can be treated with tetracyclines (although there are a few strains that are multidrug resistant--those isolated from environments associated with commercial agriculture or rampant, unregulated antibiotic use).

As long as there are rodents, there will be Y. pestis.

While the likelihood of seeing tumbrels of corpses and hearing the cry “bring out your dead” in Denver is slim to none, the story is disturbing in the sense that there is a disease regularly epizootic in rodents over half the N. American continent that was not here only a little over a century ago. (Though, for the very few people that will inevitably die over the years, relative rodent vs. human infection rates hardly matter.) We know it’s hard on prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets that can’t afford more trouble. We have very little idea what broader ecological effects sylvatic plague may or may not have.

No one intended to bring the rats with their fleas and disease to the West Coast ports where plague came ashore, but it happened. It was just an unintended consequence of human activity, and another facet of the problem of exotic pest introductions. A bacteriological kudzu or zebra mussel.

Toxoplasmosis from cat crap washes to sea and sea otters in California develop brain lesions. Someone brings their dog off their boat to play on the beach on California’s Channel Islands and the Channel Island fox, already at the brink of the abyss, is further burdened with heartworm. Someone else brings tuberculosis infected cattle to South Africa, cape buffalo spread the pathogen amongst each other, and buffalo-eating lions are now dying in Kruger national park. Meanwhile further north domestic dogs proliferate and lions in Kenya and Tanzania succumb to canine distemper. Someone brings a cask with mosquito larvae ashore in Hawaii and someone else frees some cagebirds brought from Asia or someplace infected with avian malaria, and those native Hawaii's birds now not already extinct are on the ropes. The pretty, exotic birds you saw on your Hawaiian vacation were just that: exotic.

Just as serious are plant diseases we have, and are, spreading about. Thanks to someone who brought blight-infected Chinese chestnut cuttings overseas, the dominant tree in much of Eastern N. American forests, the American Chestnut is functionally extinct. Assorted members of the fungus genus Phytopthera are rotting Australia’s native flora, killing California’s oaks, and are still killing potatoes with the late blight that caused the Irish diaspora. Vast, and growing tracts of the world will no longer support the cultivation of bananas, coffee, coconuts, etc. as a consequence of disease.

I could cite pages worth of examples, - West Nile virus, AIDS, fire ants, etc. - but the point is that we’re stirring a witches’ brew of exotic biota all over the world with no understanding of what we’re doing. Everything comes out of left field and the mechanisms and consequences are usually inscrutable even when they’re profound. A globalized economy and wholesale alteration of basically all terrestrial and many marine habitats is now driving exotic species/disease invasions at warp speed. We have no idea what we’re doing. If one were to smear the levers and buttons in a speeding locomotive with peanut butter and put a couple hungry baboons in the cab, you’d have an approximate analogy to our global ecological management.

So yeah, the story is disturbing.

>but we don’t live with rats the way we used to

Yeah, but concentrating them in Washington DC has not stopped the contagion.

I might add to the above, that long, long after Iraq, Bush, America, the human race, and celebrity scandals are forgotten, the mishmash we're making of the world's biota will be reflected in changed and aborted evolutionary trajectories across almost the entire geographic, and taxonomic spectrum.

Millions of years hence, the concrete of our cities will be reflected in a thin layer here and there in the rocks, but the abruptly altered fossil record visible in millions of stream cuts and the strangely skewed planetary biogeography will be our real and permanent legacy.

Future biologists will have to explain how a cluster of diseases in the Yersinia complex, infecting rodents and vectored by fleas, spread across oceans.

>but we don’t live with rats the way we used to

Yeah, but concentrating them in Washington DC has not stopped the contagion.

Well now, disparaging comparisons to hard-working animals trying to do no more than make an honest living is simply uncalled for.

What everyone else said about the plague in the Rockies -- it's a serious, but infrequently occurring disease here, and fortunately in almost all cases, treatable.

Albuquerque's regional science fiction convention is called "Bubonicon," and our motto (in the best of taste) is "The land of the flea; the home of the plague."


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