The nature and nightmarish potential of the rabies outbreak dawned on South Texans in late 1988 and early 1989, when coyotes were seen trotting through the streets of Rio Grande City. The first of these wayward animals crossed U.S 183, the town’s busy main drag, and sat down in the yard of a highway patrolman. The officer promptly shot it.
The creature’s docile behavior was not atypical. The image of the rabid beast—staggering, snarling, drooling—is accurate but only half true; not all rabies is the furious type. Just as often, infected canids exhibit the lethargic and treacherous symptoms of “dumb” rabies. A few weeks after that first incident, another coyote sat watching cars go by a couple of blocks from the Starr County Courthouse. A resident shot it too.
Although rabies occurs regularly on the Mexican side of the river, the disease has been virtually unknown on the American side for nearly two decades. As of September 3, 1988, eighteen years had passed since the virus had last been detected in Starr and adjacent counties in any animals except bats. Since that date—when a sickly coyote entered a yard near the rural village of Rincon, menaced the owner, and fought with his two dogs while he ran for a gun—96 cases of animal rabies have been confirmed in Starr County alone. In a twelve-county area of South Texas, the number of cases is approaching 300 and shows no sign of slowing down.
The infected animals in Starr County have included a raccoon, a bobcat, a goat, and 3 domestic cats, but the overwhelming majority of cases have involved canids—27 coyotes, 60 dogs. The brush county outbreak has spread in a consistent pattern. In tiny ranching hamlets, there will be no sign of rabies; then, all at once, the areas are besieged. Rabid coyotes show up first. Then, after a lull of eighteen days, to ten months, unvaccinated dogs develop symptoms. Scattered north of Rio Grande City are Starr County’s principle ranching communities. Their names—El Sauz, La Gloria, Santa Elena, La Reforma—reflect the county’s dominant ethnicity. They are friendly little places with tidy homes and well-kept churches, perhaps a store and a school, cemeteries filled with the floral tributes that Hispanics bestow on the dead.
In March 1991 a wave of rabies passed through these enclaves in northern Starr County. The following August, on a ranch between El Sauz and La Gloria, a 55-year-old Hispanic woman fell ill and died of canine rabies. State health investigators could never prove that her tragedy was related to the coyote epidemic; incubation of the virus in humans can take more than a year, making cause and effect hard to pin down. But investigators became suspicious when they learned that the woman’s unvaccinated dog had recently died of unknown causes. A puppy that had played with the dog had later gotten a bone caught in its throat, and the woman had stuck her finger in the pup’s mouth, trying to dislodge the obstruction. Her husband swore that she was not bitten, but then, one doesn’t have to be. The virus can enter through a minor cut or an open sore. It can be transmitted through the mucus membranes of the eyes.
Unlike most viruses, which are blood-borne, rabies travels through the nervous system, reaching the spinal cord and then inching toward the brain. The gruesome vaccination ordeal of dozens of painful shots in the abdomen is an obsolete procedure; a newer and quite effective vaccine can be administered in a series of just six shots in the arm. But doctors have to realize that the shots are required, and rabies is notoriously hard to diagnose. Symptoms can include mental depression and restlessness, sore throat, fever, nausea, and stomach pains; the profile is easily mistaken for appendicitis or inflammation of the kidneys or pelvis. By the time lab testing confirms the disease, it is almost always too late. The patient can suffer seizures, hallucinations, uncontrollable excitement, and excruciatingly painful spasms in the neck and jaws. The spasms can be triggered by the slightest irritation. As a result, the patient is unable to drink, even though he may be consumed with thirst. Death from asphyxiation, exhaustion, or general paralysis usually follows in three to ten days. Rabies is a ghastly way to go.
North of the Starr County settlements, the chaparral stretches virtually unbroken for fifty miles before reaching the Jim Hogg county seat of Hebbronville. Late one afternoon in September 1991, a month after the death of the woman who handled the puppy, a three-year-old child was playing on her porch in Hebbronville. Inside the house, her mother heard the child suddenly begin to scream. She ran outside and saw blood and a nasty wound on her daughter’s back. This time the victim did not die, but the source of the bite was undisputable. In the yard was a rabid coyote that had come right up out of the brush.
Fortunately for humans and their domestic livestock and pets, the dozen or so known strains of rabies tend to be host specific. Dogs have dog rabies, raccoons have raccoon rabies. A particular strain can be transmitted to another species of mammal but not as readily as to the same species. In Texas, skunks are the creatures most often afflicted, accounting for about half of the more than four hundred positive tests recorded by the Texas Department of Health each year. Bats come in a far distant second. Like humans and cats, coyotes have not developed an endemic rabies strain and until now were rarely affected by rabies. The animal’s behavioral traits may help to account for that. Nimble and canny creatures, coyotes are hard to corner and have been clocked running 35 miles per hour. It is possible that they might just have a keen eye for sick animals acting crazy and have learned to avoid them.
The first crossover infection may have occurred long before the fall