Bat Scratch Fever

Everything you always wanted to know about rabies -- but were afraid to touch

Call it a "Really Stupid Undomesticated Animal Trick."

While roughing it in a northern Arizona campsite south of the Village of Oak Creek last month, a group of unidentified campers discovered a bat lying on the ground. Rather than simply steering clear of the obviously disabled creature -- a healthy bat would never allow a human to handle it -- the campers picked up the animal and began tossing it around.

"As unbelievable as it sounds, these people basically adopted this sick bat as a camp mascot for three days," says Michael Murphy, spokesman for Arizona's Department of Health Services. "Not only were they handling it themselves, but they apparently were showing it to other people in the area."

Microbiologist Ron Cheshier spends his days 
examining the brains of potentially rabid animals.
Paolo Vescia
Microbiologist Ron Cheshier spends his days examining the brains of potentially rabid animals.

The state agency learned of the situation only after one of the campers sought treatment for a bat bite.

Hearing news accounts of the incident after the state health organization issued an APB for anyone who might have come in contact with the diseased bat, many people rolled their eyes. Clearly, these campers needed to have their heads examined.

In reality, however, it was the bat that had its head examined. Or, more precisely, its brain.

Several days later, when a state microbiologist studied slices of the decapitated bat's brain under a microscope, everyone's worst fears were confirmed. The tissue was found to be infected with rabies, the deadly virus that attacks the central nervous system of mammals.

As a result of the discovery, the camper who'd been bitten by the bat and eight others known to have had contact with the creature began a series of rabies shots. Fortunately, the treatment enabled them to escape what one public health official has deemed the most awful type of death imaginable.

"A colleague at the Centers for Disease Control once said that if he had to pick the most horrible way to die, it would be rabies," says Ron Cheshier, the microbiologist who examined the rabid bat. "You go psychotic, you get spasms in your throat, you get very anxious and, ultimately, you die of respiratory and cardiac arrest. Once a human begins to show symptoms of the disease, rabies is virtually always fatal."


A disease that is both fascinating and repulsive -- folklorists believe that the legendary werewolf may actually have been a victim of the virus -- rabies continues its strange stranglehold on America's imagination. Particularly Arizona's imagination, after a dry summer that has driven potential rabies carriers from bats to bears into metropolitan Phoenix.

But epidemiologists confirm the fear -- animal rabies is on the rise. Events like those in Oak Creek Canyon have led health officials to try to educate an amazingly ignorant public. Veterinarians are urging pet owners to vaccinate their cats for rabies. But not every animal can be vaccinated -- and people do still die of rabies.

Ron Cheshier is one man who faces rabies every day -- and has lived to tell the tale.

As chief microbiologist for the Arizona Department of Health Services laboratory, Cheshier would have made a great guest on the now-defunct game show What's My Line?. If that quiz program were still on the air, he'd surely stump the panel with a thumbnail description of one particularly ghoulish aspect of his livelihood: "examines the brains of dead animals suspected of carrying rabies."

Located in the DHS building at 15th Avenue and Adams (another lab in Tucson handles southern Arizona cases), Cheshier's department is a showcase for rabies in its many shapes and forms. Scattered on the walls is a variety of framed bat carcasses, including a spooky-looking Mexican vampire specimen with a long, siphonlike snout used to drain blood from host animals.

In the hallway, a bulletin board is covered with yellowing 8-by-10 glossies, a hit parade of wild-eyed, frothing canines in the final throes of rabies. Nearby, a large map of Arizona is studded with multicolored pushpins representing cases in which the rabies virus has been positively identified in animals. It is not a comforting sight. While movies like Old Yeller have led most people to think of rabies as a rural phenomenon, the majority of the pins are jammed into the Phoenix metro area, with a secondary cluster in Tucson, and relatively few scattered through less-populated areas of the state.

Down the hall and around the corner is a plaque identifying the "Necropsy," a small autopsy lab off-limits to everyone but Cheshier and a handful of technicians, all of whom have been inoculated with the rabies vaccine. This is where -- clad in white coats, gloves and protective masks -- they dissect hundreds of animal heads that come under their scrutiny annually.

Realizing that other workers in the department might not relish an accidental glimpse of a technician boring into a cat's skull with a bone saw, someone has covered the window in the door with tissue paper. A thoughtful gesture, the semi-opaque covering shields Cheshier's grisly handiwork from the faint of heart, while still allowing the morbidly curious to get a fuzzy peek into the tiny chamber outfitted with a refrigerator, sink and mini autopsy slab.

And although Halloween is just around the corner, the decorations pasted all over the lab's door have nothing to do with the upcoming holiday. Says one employee, "Oh, those paper bats? They're here all year round."

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