by Janet A. Ginsburg

As a writer and producer, I have been lucky enough to chase after wild horses on the Wyoming / Montana border, follow Kirelian bear dogs following grizzlies in Glacier National Park, and track coyotes in the upscale urban wilds of Scottsdale and Tucson. I have sat in forests near the Mississippi river with biologists hot on the trail of wild virus (West Nile), searching for evidence in the delicate, lighter-than-air bodies of migrating birds. And I have huddled in a hut in “Crane City,” watching a Whooping Crane chick “pip” live on closed circuit TV at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin.

I am a city kid (Chicago) who knows far more than a city kid ought about the maladies of cows, pigs and poultry, and whose head is filled with disturbing stray facts like how there are two million feral pigs in the U.S. – one million in Texas alone – and that crates of imported turtles and frogs destined for dinner plates can be labeled as “fish” because the FDA says that’s okay.

I never expected to be so interested in science. But then I never expected to find myself in a van speeding across eastern Arizona to film a segment on the reintroduction of gray wolves in the Blue Mountains, sitting next to a National Wildlife Federation biologist with the soul of a poet who could quote Aldo Leopold chapter and verse:
… In those days we never passed up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the whole pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view…

…I now suspect that just a deer lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

…Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wilderness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of a wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

-- from "Thinking Like a Mountain," A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold

Of course, in the half-century since Leopold wrote that essay, deer have cleverly come down off the mountain into the wolfless, hunterless deer paradise that is Suburbia. In Connecticut, where deer play a key role in the life cycle of the tick carrying Lyme Disease (named after the town), deer were actually shipped in to replace a herd that had been hunted to regional extinction. Now there are so many deer – at least 20 million in the U.S. – there are an estimated 500,000 deer/auto collisions annually. Bambi has become a billion dollar insurance nightmare.

Too many deer coupled with the rise of the unfathomable deer farming industry (great, just what we need, more deer…) has led to the spread of a plague Leopold never could have imagined: Mad Deer, a cousin of Mad Cow. It’s a horrible illness, causing animals to stagger in confusion as a pernicious little wayward protein called a prion literally drills holes in their heads.

I have sat halfway up a tree with my friend John on a fall morning during an early hunt to thin the herd in the Mad Deer “eradication zone” near the Wisconsin river, not far from Madison. John is probably the only person I would follow into a forest where he’s armed, I’m not, I don’t know where I’m going, and my blaze orange top means nothing in the dark. We perched quietly for hours on a little plywood platform, watching and listening to the dawn, and doing our best to fade into the woods. It was glorious. I saw things I had never seen before. Life even 10 feet up from the ground is a whole different drama.

We didn’t shoot any deer that morning because the leaf cover was still thick. But we did stop by the testing station where “Laura the Lopper” from the state Department of Natural Resources was busy cutting the heads off deer carcasses so researchers could scoop out a dollop of brain for testing. Surveillance schemes that look so neat on paper are anything but in practice.


I started covering wildlife disease stories with a piece for BusinessWeek. "BioInvasion" was among the first of its kind, coming months before the Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak in Britain, the post 9/11 anthrax attacks in DC, and reports of monkeypox in the Midwest. It is easy to be prescient when everyone you interview, from USDA veterinarians and wildlife biologists, to CDC epidemiologists and even the CIA, describes the same looming peril: more diseases jumping into more species more often, threatening food supplies, ecosystems, political stability and pandemics.

It was, in a way, an accidental story. I had been looking for something to expose the dangers of the exotic pet trade when I saw a little wire service item about a sick African tortoise in Florida. The tortoise had been brought into a clinic covered with giant African ticks known to carry a nasty disease called Heartwater. Heartwater? I had never heard of it either. But this was brilliant. A technicality with teeth. It would be like taking down Capone on tax charges.

The USDA has spent millions of dollars over the years trying to keep Heartwater out of the U.S., fearing the disease could derail the livestock industry, while devastating wild herds of deer, antelope and almost anything else with a rumen and hooves. Yet here it was, a plague sneaking in the back door on the slow-moving legs of an ailing pet. Actually, those particular ticks tested negative. But I stayed in touch with the vets in Florida, and 18 months and about a dozen exotic pet-related infestations later, they had a positive. The ticks were killed before any real damage had been done. And I had the opening for a story that would grow from three-columns to a full-blown special report.

"BioInvasion" won several awards, including one from the American Society for Microbiology. Suddenly my contact list bulged with scientists, each with something new to teach me about microbes and parasites. My shelves quickly filled with books on diseases of every gruesome description, and tales of the insects and animals that vector them. I can now scare the pants off anybody.


As I read and interviewed and continued to write, I started to realize just what a small tip of a very large iceberg I had stumbled upon. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of epizootics (wildlife epidemics), that have maimed and killed tens of millions of birds, fish, frogs, rabbits, deer, seals, shellfish, turtles, sea otters - scarcely a species has been spared. “Emerging” diseases aren’t only emerging in humans. For every SARS, Bird Flu and Ebola story you read, there are dozens of stories you almost never see because the disease in question hasn’t hit our species. Yet. Most diseases are zoonotic, meaning they infect both animals and people. If something as bizarre as monkeypox in an imported Gambian rat infecting a pet prairie dog from Texas infecting a little girl in the American Midwest can happen, all bets are off on what’s possible and what’s likely.

I have become much more aware of how things connect, and how changes to the environment, whether natural or man-made, can come back to haunt us in the most unexpected ways. Warm the planet by a degree or two and millions more people will suddenly find themselves living in malarial territory. Overuse antibiotics and the lateral transfer of resistance genes can mean the difference between life and death for a germ’s unwitting host. Which could be me. Or you. Or a whole Noah’s Ark of innocent creatures.


On a more encouraging note, things actually can work the other way, too, with subtle microbial changes providing unknown and generally unacknowledged advantages. On the bulletin board above my desk hangs a yellowed news photo of Natasha-the-Macaque, who lives in an Israeli zoo. After a bout with a stomach bug a few years ago, Natasha started walking upright, which macaques can do, only now she only walks upright. This probably isn't the way it happened with our ancestors, but it's certainly something to think about. Little things lead to big things all the time.

Each day, as much as half the bacteria and algae in the oceans are killed by tiny viruses called phages. Twenty years ago, no one knew there were viruses in the oceans at all, let alone so many. And now they turn out to play a key role in the carbon cycle, managing populations of microbes, releasing their bounty back into food chain.

My “profile” has now morphed into a too-long meandering essay, which tells you one more important thing about me: I think, talk and write in tangents. Readers beware.

germtales is now a website. In addition to posts on subjects ranging from The Mystery of the Ancient Horses to Mind Germs, there are book reviews, interviews, news headline links and an extensive, eclectic sources page.

Thanks for your interest!



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At 12:18 PM, Blogger Nancy White said...

Glad to see you blogging again!


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