Monkeys—when you consider how many subspecies of them are native to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois—were sure to cause an epidemic of some kind in the Upper Midwest. In fact, monkeypox has been traced to prairie dogs sold as house pets after being infected by a single imported specimen of the giant Gambian rat, a three-pound rodent Godzilla being held in captivity by Phil’s Pocket Pets in Villa Park, Illinois. As of this writing, 82 people in five states have contracted the illness, and an entire family has been quarantined for the duration.
Prairie dogs, African gerbils, African dwarf hedgehogs, Gambian rats; camel-pox, cowpox, skunkpox, raccoonpox, rabbitpox, birdpox, mousepox, monkeypox; West Nile Virus . . . we finally have a pet and virus profile in the United States that looks like America, and American epidemiology obediently reflects the trend. So many exotic creatures and diseases, from everywhere! Diversity is our strength, now more than ever. (Except in the national forests, where good ol’ boys bearing arms are compelled by law to feed certified weed-free hay at six or seven dollars per bale to their horses: The Department of Agriculture learned a lesson from a mistake by the Department of the Interior, which, a century ago, imported from Asia a bush called “salt cedar” that, in addition to controlling erosion, is busy choking off and drinking up every free-flowing river across the Western states.) I myself keep three Patagonian conures and one Nanday in the house, plus a large family of illegal Chinese immigrants hiding out in the basement, and have been down three times with psittacosis and once with TB; currently, I’m being treated for SARS. (The cultural enrichment I receive makes it all more than worthwhile, though.)
Monkeypox, originally identified in monkeys in 1959, was proved in 1970 to be infectious for humans. Less dangerous than smallpox, which has a 30-percent mortality rate, monkeypox is deadly in only one to ten percent of cases reported from Africa, where an outbreak of the disease occurred in the Congo in the 1990’s. The World Health Organization suspects that a cavalier attitude toward smallpox vaccination might be responsible for the virus having taken a strong hold within the human population, monkey-pox and smallpox being closely related. Unfortunately, the resumption of vaccine programs in Africa is infeasible, owing to the widespread incidence of a preexisting condition of AIDS on the Dark Continent, which makes the monkeypox vaccination highly dangerous to a significant percentage of the population. In the United States, where AIDS is (still) much less of a scourge, an aggressive campaign on the part of the Department of Homeland Security (Quarantine America!) can be counted on to nip monkeypox in the bud, the way the Chinese government handled SARS last spring.
That leaves only the threat to America’s prairie dogs to be considered. That is a big only, however, since the varmints have lately become a cause célèbre with environmentalists eager to protect them from marauding rednecks with target rifles. Que faire? You can’t say “no” to anyone or anything from Gambia. On the other hand, if the prairie dog community across America suffers a massive die-off, what becomes of the rationale for separating rednecks from their guns?
Life in America was so simple, once . . .
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