Pima County is leading the pack in an extremely exciting category.
So far this year, we’re the No. 1 place in the entire state to be infested with this dread disease.
Who says nothing fun ever happens in and around Tucson?
From Jan. 1 through March 21, a total of 59 animals have tested positive for rabies across Arizona, 21 of those in Pima County. Comparatively, Cochise and Coconino counties have amassed a paltry 13 cases each.
Last year’s statewide rabies cases broke all records with 176, beating out the previous record of 169 set in 2005.
Pima’s rabid animal count for 2009 has thus far included 15 skunks and six foxes.
I was relieved my dogs – Phoebe and Sawyer – were not on the list, though one of my co-workers, Brad Poole, and his friend April McMahon nearly were.
They were out on a hiking date at Tanque Verde Falls when a skunk came barreling across a rock bed like, well, a skunk with rabies.
While in the past rabid skunks would turn cute and cuddly, perhaps to lure folks close enough to take a chunk out of a human arm, the skunks now come “charging, growling, snapping,” said county Health Department spokeswoman Patti Woodcock.
Rabid skunks are vying with Cujo for becoming the poster child for chilling rabid encounters.
At least Poole and McMahon did the right thing when confronted with the raving, raging skunk.
Poole got out his video camera, and they both moved closer. They then made their way to the rock crevice where the frenzied skunk had run to hide.
The two stopped short of poking their arms in the crevice, though Poole later told me he had considered poking a stick in the hole.
“The worst thing you can do is get too close to the animal,” said Steve Dell, a dog behaviorist and owner of Bark Busters dog training company.
His advice for folks, especially those out walking their dogs, is to divert the potentially rabid beast and get the heck out of there.
“Don’t bend down. Don’t try to feed it. Don’t try to pet the animal,” Dell warned. Even if the animal you’ve encountered has a collar, he said, it may be a stray that is infected.
“Carry some dog kibble or something in your pocket – obviously keep it away from your own granola mix – and gently toss the kibble a safe distance away from you.”
He noted that rabid animals, especially those that used to be house pets, will be foraging for food.
They should take to the kibble, giving you time to escape.
But make sure your own dogs don’t go for the kibble and end up fighting the rabid thing for it.
“Many dogs have an innate sense that something’s not right and will want to get away from the rabid animal,” he said. “Some are very friendly and will come up to anything.”
Sawyer, I’m sure, would attack a rabid beast. Phoebe would probably pee on it.
In either case, I’m stocking up on kibble.
Dell has yet to run across a rabid animal in Pima County, though a couple out hiking last year were attacked by a rabid bobcat.
Katrina Mangin and husband Rich Thomspon, both University of Arizona scientists, encountered the beastly beast while hiking in the Santa Rita Mountains last April.
That innate sense kicked in for Thompson, who immediately somehow knew the bobcat was rabid – even before it attacked his wife. The bobcat lunged at her, then climbed up her legs and wrapped itself around her, clawing and biting.
The couple got away only after Thompson pinned the raging cat to the ground with a stick and pummeled it to death with a hammer from his backpack.
Ouch. So much for the kibble.
As scary as encounters can be, Dell said it should not deter folks from enjoying the great outdoors.
“People should have no fear of hiking in this area,” he said, “assuming they use some common sense. They shouldn’t be frightened to the point of staying inside.”
Nor should they go without their kibble. And it can’t hurt to put a hammer in your backpack.
Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist and Tucson Citizen reporter who saw a rabid bat up close when a homeless man brought one inside the New York City pet store where she used to work. Listen to a preview of her column at 8:10 a.m. Thursdays on KLPX-FM (96.1).
Rabid skunk video?
Watch Citizen Staff Writer Brad Poole’s encounter with a potentially rabid skunk.
This column originally appeared in the March 27, 2009, issue of the Tucson Citizen newspaper.