by Genese Sodikoff
The rabid opposition of American gun owners to stricter gun regulations in the wake of mass shootings is reminiscent of dog owners' opposition to rabies-control measures amidst rashes of “mad dog” attacks in in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Poodles in the 1920s were especially mad, for some reason).
Every disease has its particular cultural expression. Societies have their unique spins on the causes and treatments of disease and the experience of suffering. And as I read old newspapers about rabies, it struck me how efforts to control the virus in the United States stirred a familiar anti-government, Freedom-loving, dog-loving ethos, along with a deep distrust of policy-makers and their reasons. In the anti-dog-vax, anti-dog-tax days, some doubted that “hydrophobia,” the clinical term for human rabies, even existed.
Until the 1950s, canine rabies blighted the American cultural landscape and people's inner lives. In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus (2012), Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy explain that the rising popularity of pet-keeping in the West made the threat of rabies “an object of disproportionate panic throughout the nineteenth century.” Their gripping book follows the the virus from Ancient Greece to modern medical labs, where scientists are exploiting the rabies peptide as a means to penetrate the blood-brain barrier.
Transported from Europe to America during colonization, and then frequently spilling over from foxes, wolves, raccoons, skunks and bats into domestic animal populations, rabies brought wildness into American towns and cities. Before Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux developed the human rabies vaccine in 1885, the virus destroyed families. Children frequently died of mad dog attacks, as did beloved pets and farm animals.
The incubation period between animal bite and the appearance of symptoms, anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, kept bite victims in the limbo of uncertainty. If a victim was positively infected, the virus, once it entered the central nervous system, caused chilling personality changes and tortuous death.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, canine rabies was pandemic in much of Europe and America. From 1855 to 1874, New York City recorded fifty-seven human deaths by hydrophobia. The number sounds low, but the rate of dog infection was high and steadily growing across the nation. It reached crisis proportions in the northeast at different times, as in the 1920s. The sociability of dogs helped to spread the virus among wild canine packs and between wild and domestic breeds.
Newspapers helped to sensationalize rabies with splashy headlines about attacks by mad dogs and the occasional mad cat. Late nineteenth century reports from police blotters made Manhattan and Newark sound like a terrifying funhouses, a frothing canine ready to spring around every corner.
A small sampling of New York Times headlines gives a sense of the degree to which mad dogs infiltrated white social life: “A Struggle with a Mad Dog: Miss Berndt's Awkward Position and How She Escaped” (1884). “A Mad Dog Bites Sixteen Persons” (1894). “Mad Dog at a Ball: Appears at a College Students' Dance and Bites Three Men” (1900); “Big Mad Dog Blocks Traffic: Turns up its Nose at Sausage, but Bites Boy and Policeman, and Finally is Shot” (1901); “Orders Mad Dog Quarantine: Six Towns Up State Must Muzzle or Kill Every Canine” (1904); “Rabid Bull Terrier Bit Child and a Policeman: Then it Dashes Into a Hall and Breaks Up a Concert” 1905). “Bull Terrier Bites Six on a Rampage” (1909). “Mad Bull Terrier Clears Eighth Ave.: Laborers Scatter and Women Run Into Stores and Jump Upon Counters” (1910). “Mongrel Dog Bites Ten” (1915). “Pet Chow Goes Mad, 7 Persons Bitten” (1921).
The resistance to rabies laws intensified the threat to public health. Scientists faulted the absence of good laws on rabies or lax law enforcement for the spread of the virus. When municipalities tried to pass “dog bills” to control rabies, officials confronted the fury of dog owners and dog fanciers, who denounced measures they found cruel or onerous.
It did not help matters to have quack scientists deny the existence of hydrophobia. In 1886, a New York Times article reports a Dr. Henry Bergh defending the dubious dog experiments of one Dr. Spitzka that involved, among other things, breaking dogs' spines to see if they would survive:
“He is aiming to show what I believe, that there is no such specific disease as hydrophobia. He wants to demonstrate to people who will stop to think that the transmission of rabies from animals to man is a fallacious theory, and that while people may die of fear they are not in danger if they will rid their minds of silly notions on this subject. If he can show this, and can correct popular impressions upon this subject, and thereby prove that Pasteur is a humbug, I shall not consider the sacrifice of a few dogs a great price to pay for this object.”
European countries had enacted and enforced muzzling laws in spite of public grousing and, as a result, made significant headway in controlling rabies. In the US, bills that called for quarantining and muzzling dogs or exterminating unleashed ones compelled canophiles to pen emotional editorials and to stand up in town hall-style meetings defending the liberty of dogs. Why should a dog suffer the muzzle, which made eating and drinking nearly impossible, on the basis of an unlikely chance it would infect people with rabies? In 1846, a New York Delegate at a temperance convention at Albany argued,
“there was more necessity of shutting up the shops of two-legged animals who sold maddening liquors than there was for muzzling the four-legged of the canine race for fear of hydrophobia.”
Another man, a Mr. Leonard of Bristol, MA passionately criticized a muzzling bill in 1849 that, in his view, would effectively “exterminate the canine race”:
“I am fully persuaded, Sir, that if there was an account current exhibited for and against the dogs, in which they shall be charged with every death in the human family which they have caused by hydrophobia, or otherwise, and credited with all the human lives which they have saved, the balance would be greatly in favor of the dog.”
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in New York in 1866, opposed muzzling as inhumane. Wire muzzles in those days did resemble medieval torture devices. Asserting that muzzles were an unscientific way to control rabies, members of the New York Neurological Society, founded in 1872, resolved instead to endorse taxing dog owners and requiring licensing. They also recommended, curiously, that owners be required to blunt their dogs' incisors and canines with files and nippers, offering detailed instructions on how to proceed.
Summing up what had gone on for decades, Dr. John B. Huber complained in a Scientific American article in 1911 that “as soon as a muzzling law is passed owners of dogs are up in arms, using their time, influence and money to secure its repeal, or prevent its enforcement, on the ground of alleged cruelty.”
Later bills that proposed mandatory dog vaccinations also faced popular uprising. A dog vaccine was available as early as 1907, but many feared the vaccine would transmit rabies or cause suffering to their pets. On rare occasion, this could occur, but the vaccine was gradually perfected.
In Ridgewood, NJ, in 1926 an ordinance requiring the inoculation and leashing of all dogs brought a huge voter turnout, generating more interest “than all the candidates in the New Jersey primary election.” The ordinance called for fining owners who failed to inoculate, leash, and muzzle their pets. Petitioners went door-to-door soliciting votes for either the old dog ordinance or the less popular new one, which would simply enforce what was stated in the old one. A reporter wryly describes the scene:
“Dog owners organized to resist the tyranny of enforcing an ordinance. Their motto was any sum for campaign expenses, but not one cent for fines for straying.”
Vaccination bills drew out the “big guns,” rich patrons of dog shows, such as Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge (aka Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller), who in 1939 successfully routed a compulsory vaccination bill in New Jersey. She worried the legislation would put a damper on her renowned Morris & Essex Kennel Club dog show.
By 1939, rabies had become so rampant in Newark that Health Officer, Charles Craster, proposed that “all dogs in the city, estimated at 25,000, be ‘gotten rid of.'” That never happened. Seven years later, he was again sounding the alarm about the rabies epidemic among Newark's dogs, and imploring dog-owners to leash their pets “as required by law.” City workers in Newark were sent out daily in trucks to penalize owners for letting their dogs roam free, or to destroy and collect the dogs upon the second offense.
When a mad animal did terrorize an area, the pendulum of sentiment about dogs swung the other way. In the country districts of Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1890, a general war against dogs was in force after a series of mad dog encounters, including a harrowing incident in which a whole village took up “shotguns, pitchforks, stones, and staves” to hunt down a mad dog running amok. The New York Times reported that in “some remote hamlets women and children have shut themselves up in their homes; especially at night they dare not venture abroad let a mad dog running at large and foaming at the mouth, may leap upon them out of the darkness.”
The fear of mad dogs may partly account for the character of symptoms in hydrophobia victims, who sometimes displayed werewolfish behaviors (this has not been the case for people in, say, the Venezuelan rain forest). Take the case of John F. Bloom, a rabid Chicago man, who at 5 o'clock on July 20, 1900 “created terror among pedestrians” as he ran from his house “snarling and barking like a vicious dog.” In Pittsburgh in 1906, a rabid Mr. Garrison, “snapping and snarling like a dog while rolling on the ground,” bit a policeman.
Through these reports, rabies had engendered a new kind of neurosis, or what anthropologists call a “culture bound syndrome.” This was false hydrophobia, or “lyssophobia,” resulting from the bite of a dog presumed rabid. For sensitive types, the disease offered a psychically appealing array of symptoms. Dr. John M. Huber writes in 1911, that a nervous person “may have paroxysms in which he says he is unable to drink, grasps at his throat and becomes emotional.” The sufferer presented many of the usual symptoms (except for fever) but then miraculously recovered. An editorialist opined in 1874 that hydrophobia was a fashionable “new panic” that gave ordinary alcoholics some social cachet: “Patients who, in other times, would die quietly or obscurely of delirium tremens, now see fit to foam at the mouth, to bark like a dog, and to simulate a sudden aversion to water which in reality has characterized their entire lives, and is the cause and not the effect of their complaint.”
After World War II, officials got serious about compulsory dog vaccination. Vaccinations and quarantines eventually reduced rabies infection in household pets and livestock. Reports of rabid dogs declined from around 5,000 in 1950 to 79 in 2006. But rabies still percolates in wildlife populations, and at times balloons into epidemic proportions.
In other countries, canine rabies remains a serious problem, and in 2008, a strange case of rabies with a distinctly American flavor again made US headlines: “Rabid Pet is Among the Dogs Flown Here from Iraq.”
An SPCA International rescue program, “Operation Baghdad Pups,” ran into some trouble while organizing reunions between veterans and dogs they had adopted while stationed in Iraq. Although the US military command officially forbids soldiers to own pets, the rule was not enforced in light of the tough conditions of the Iraq war. It was common for service members to adopt strays to boost morale, and through the efforts of animal lovers and the SPCA, veterans were given the green light to have their service animals sent home.
On June 5, a group of 24 dogs and 2 cats were flown from Iraq to the Newark Liberty International Airport, where they were held and inspected in a special quarantine area before being flown out to their former soldier companions. Three days after arrival, one Labrador-spaniel mix, “Crusader,” became wobbly, agitated, and feverish in the airport quarantine. He was sent to a veterinary clinic. Meanwhile, the other animals were shipped off to 16 different states.
Crusader had to be euthanized in New Jersey, but it took another week to confirm his diagnosis as rabies, a Middle East variant of the virus. Federal and state officials scrambled to track down Crusader's potentially rabid travel mates. A veterinarian at the New Jersey Department of Public Health remembers that some of those animals had been sent off to the homes of soldiers' Significant Others, who had in the war interim become ex-Significant Others.
At times in our nation's history, braving the threat of hydrophobia seemed, for some, the patriotic thing to do. Nationalist sentiment was braided into the bond of loyalty between owners and pets. The defense of dog freedom, the resistance to rabies laws, grew out of the conviction that people and pets had the right to a mutual pursuit of happiness.
A botanist and eke Physician
One very good at composition
That is—in mortar he can bray
A cure for hydrophobia;
In other words, with magic mortar
Can cure that mortal dread of water;
Can make of arse-smart, dock and burrage
A mixture to inspire with courage,
Which if apply'd in form unguental
To any c-w—d's fundamentals,
‘Twill make him soon, to fear, a stranger,
And stoutly brave the greatest danger;
‘Twill raise his sound of lungs the louder
And make him love the smell of powder;
‘Twill rectify his constitution
To approbate the Revolution;
And not condemn the means and hopes
Of Solon to inspire the troops,
With courage, discipline and reason
To save his native land in season.
Poem excerpt, The Freeman's Oracle or New Hampshire Advertiser
March 25, 1789