An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

~ G. K. Chesterton, On Running after One's Hat, 1908

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Unfounded Fears: Rabies, Crows and Belly Buttons

"Crow Invasion Has Neighbors Squawking"
- Bloomington Herald Times headline, Sunday, December 5, 2010

When I was a kid I was afraid of two things. Okay, I was afraid of lots of things, but two in particular thanks to my mother's evocative warnings.  One fear was that my belly button would pop out. This, my mom told me, would happen if I picked up my none-too-little little brother. I really shouldn't have tried to lift him. Arguably, I also shouldn't have been imagining torrents of blood stream out of a hole in my stomach. Thanks, Mom.

Speaking of stomachs, the other fear was rabies. After we watched Old Yeller, my mom, warning against strange dogs, told me that rabies required a month of painful shots. Every day. In the stomach.  We saw lots of westerns in my household; I think I conflated the imagined pain of this with gut shot.

For the record, even if this dramatic treatment was ever true, it's not true now. Four treatments. In your arm over the course of 14 days. That's it. And rabies, though fatal if not treated, is so rare in the United States that only 55 cases of human rabies have been diagnosed since 1990.

Rabid dogs are scary, but even the best efforts of Stephen King won't make you look twice at the family pet. Some creatures just have a P.R. problem.  Bats can carry rabies, but so can raccoons and nobody runs in fear when they first see one (though perhaps they should). 

Bats from one perspective are tiny teddy bears with wings who make margaritas possible and control the insect population, but the vampire bat's dance with Bela Lugosi has ruined their reputation.   The little brown bat (actual name, not me being precious) that flies through Indiana trees, eats our mosquitoes and provides choice fertilizer isn't after our blood or set on giving us seizures. Enter a P.R person's dream and a ecologist's nightmare: White Nose Syndrome. Nothing creates a more enduring legacy than an attractive corpse. And, bats have never looked cuter.  Pictures of sick little bats huddled together evokes "Got Milk" ads and what's more wholesome than milk?

I'm thinking about bats because Bloomington has been visited by the other B-grade horror fixture: the crow.  A murder of crows. If that appelation doesn't hearken to darker things, I don't know what does.

While some Bloomingtonians are none-to-pleased by the invasion of crows, I like them. One recent foggy morning, I scootered downtown to fetch bagels.  As I drove through the back roads of the Maple Heights neighborhood, mist hid the horizon and leafless black trees reached across the road. Crows as big as cats flapped in front of me and disappeared into the fog.  My life had taken a turn to the delightfully spooky.

I wasn't always delighted by crows. On an early trip to Disney World, a stalled Haunted House ride trapped me next to a squawking mechanical crow. Or, raven. Or crow. The difference was immaterial. It was unhinging -- like being trapped in a real-life cross between The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven.  By the end, I was ready to plead guilty to anything.

Fortunately, I was a child at the happiest place on earth, not a terrorist suspect. My punishment was the It's a Small World ride, which my parents inexplicably loved.

Bats, compared to crows, have it good. While bats are now tragically cute, they also have the Organization for Bat Conservation and attractive TV spokescientist Rob Mies.  Crows have no attractive spokescientist. They have goth teens.  Bat houses can be bought at Lowe's, while cities and farmers invest in sonic bird deterrents. No one respects a scavenger.

Crows do, however, have a sympathetic new documentary. My view of crows changed on seeing this film. Not only do crows clean the streets of road kill, these omnivorous creatures have a complicated social structure, mate for life and have the capacity for tool use -- an ability long ago thought to be held by humans alone.

They can also hold grudges, another human-like trait.  Take that, dolphin, sweet jester of the deep.  In fact, not only can crows take a dislike to someone, they can teach that hate to their children, which is both neat and disturbingly close to home.  

Bloomington has seen the crow's visit as a nuisance. In a recent newspaper article, the great number of crows was compared to a scene from The Birds. I've never read an article so full of excrement. Literally. "Wear a hat," an IU biologist said.

Perhaps I would feel differently if my back deck was besmirched. Instead I look at the crow painting my friend Brett gave Matt and me as a wedding gift and choose to think of the murder, not as menace, but as a mysterious break from the routine. I'm prompted to learn more. I know vaguely of the crow's trickster place in some myth, and as I research I'm surprised to find one very different story: The Rainbow Crow, a hero's journey that colors my view of crows yet again and makes me wonder more about why some creatures are admired and others aren't.


  1. Crows. Who knew?
    Enjoying your blog, Ms. B.


  2. I'm enjoying your blog, Tracy!
    Jane G