November 20, 2008

Of plague, a mountain lion, and an unlucky biologist

Not the plague cat: Shelby County's Mountain Lion. [Gloves, people! Protective respirators!]

And I thought dead rattlesnakes were the only things that could smite me from beyond the grave.
A wildlife biologist who was never trained about disease risks he could encounter while on the job died from the plague after handling a deceased lion without protective gear, according to a federal report.

The report [completed in May; released 19 Nov. 2008] by a National Park Service review board said Eric York, 37, didn't wear gloves or a protective respirator in October 2007 while handling and performing a necropsy on a mountain lion that had died of the plague.
Read the whole sad story here. York was involved in a mountain lion collaring program in Grand Canyon National Park and became ill after recovering the body of a collared lion.

An average of 10 to 15 persons are infected with plague in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. The disease is usually associated with infected rats and rat fleas that live in the home, and is more common in rural areas: "in the United States, the last urban plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25." [Yes, L.A. was urban then: 576,673 inhabitants in 1920.] Diamond Bar, an area threatened by the recent fires here in SoCal, suffered a plague outbreak in the 1970s. The Diamond Bar outbreak was traced to ground squirrels, the usual plague suspects in Southern California. But a fatal case of plague from handling a mountain lion...? Unheard of — until now.

Further reading:

CDC Plague Home Page

World Health Organization: Plague Fact Sheet

MedlinePlus Encyclopedia: Plague

Note to self: when collecting road kill specimens for county museum, remember to wear gloves.

H/T: Wildfire Today.


themacinator said...

i forget who i was discussing this story with, but it really is sad, although strangely disturbing. a necropsy in a garage? eek.

Bill Fosher said...

Wow. I thought antibiotics were available everywhere in the US!

I guess you can reach the point of no return if you keep telling yourself: "It's just a cold. Those black rings don't mean anything." Poor guy.

I'm off to dress a deer from the roadside. Got the fancy purple gloves!

Luisa said...

Bill wrote, I'm off to dress a deer from the roadside. Got the fancy purple gloves!

Also: hold your breath during the especially yucky moments. Respirators are for beginners.

Working title for this post was That settles it — no more garage necropsies.

DavidDavid said...

Can Deer Mouse carry plague too? I've seen the stories of Hanta Virus they carry. It was of some concern the other night, as I brought one home found sick or injured by the roadside. Kept it in a cardboard box, and handled it gingerly, and it perished, and out to a woodsey burial...
That one doesn't concern me so much as the very live one that scoots under the door, seeking fallen cheetos!


Luisa said...

According to this abstract there is "no evidence of deer mouse involvement in plague (Yersinia pestis) epizootics in prairie dogs." Prairie dogs aren't people, of course, but still.

Deer mice have a different type of flea -- the typical plague-carrying flea is this little sucker. Not that it couldn't happen, but apparently "the deer mouse is an unlikely maintenance host" where plague is concerned. In prairie dog colonies, anyway.

Your county's vector control should have more info: example. [See plague pdf.]

Anonymous said...

Eric York was my mother's childhood friend, prom date, and friend of the family! To us he isn't just an "unlucky biologist" he dedicated his life to this study and truly cared. He was someone whose life was ended too soon and he had such knowledge to build on and to really make a difference. He as well is my inspiration to pursue my bachelors degree in wildlife biology. I only wish I could have met and learned from him before he passed! All I have now is my mother's stories and articles in papers.