Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Human Link to Rabid Rules

There are two types of R-and-R.

One is pleasant and enjoyable: rest -and- recreation.

The other is onerous and tedious: rules -and- regulations.

It's the R-and-R of the onerous variety that tends to rub many Americans the wrong way when it comes to our government and the many ways we perceive bureaucrats are trying to control our lives.

And in our current political climate, rules and regulations have become ripe as targets for ridicule and overthrow as the specter of Nanny State control seems to have sent its tentacles into every aspect of modern American life.

Yet, as I've said before, how many of these rules and regulations have actually been codified because a group of people originally abused something that used to be free and unregulated? How many times has the government been called to step in when somebody has crossed the line between respectful compliance with normative - albeit non-regulated - behavior, and pushing the line into something unsustainable?

Take, for example, the longtime sport of coon hunting in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Not that I have anything against hunting. Or any particular affection for raccoons.

But did you know that the entire East Coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida, has been infested with a severe raccoon rabies crisis?

And it all started when some enterprising hunters broke the law.

The Lacey Act, to be specific.

Trafficking in Raccoons

Back in the 1970's, Florida found itself with a burgeoning population of raccoons, who were spreading rabies amongst themselves at epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, back in Virginia, a group of raccoon hunters feared they were running out of their favorite prey, and learned of Florida's extra supply. Whether they also learned of Florida's rabies plight is unclear.

Let's assume that the coon hunters from Virginia didn't know about the rabies, since that will help out their side of this sordid tale. The Virginia coon hunters traveled down to Florida, caught thousands of the ring-tailed critters, and hauled them back to ol' Virginny so their coon dogs could have a field day chasing them through woods and, well, fields. And grown men could go a'hunting and bond over the slaughter of innocent animals.

Like I said, I'm not anti-hunting, but there has to be a point to it for it to be worthwhile. Hunting raccoons to help control their population is a legitimate pursuit. But doesn't trapping animals and trucking them to your own patch of forest so you can hunt them again seem woefully unsportsmanlike?

At any rate, enough of the raccoons either never got shot - or had plenty of time between being released in Virginia and getting killed for sport - to infect the indigenous raccoon population with rabies, a little souvenir from their Florida days. And, thanks to some naturally-occurring environmental conditions, particularly in Virginia's Loudon County, the rabies epidemic took off like a scared varmint out of a trap. It sprinted up the East Coast to Maine and into Canada, and all the way back down the Carolinas to Florida. And within a decade, rabid raccoons were everywhere. Even more than those Virginia hunters could ever hope to kill.

Don't believe me? How about England's Twycross Zoo, and it's WildPro website of wildlife experts? In a study on raccoon rabies along the East Coast of their former colonies, Wildpro made the following assessments:

"Long-distance translocation of raccoons for hunting is considered to be the method by which raccoon rabies reached the mid-Atlantic states... Deliberate translocation of raccoons from the south-eastern USA is considered to be the most likely source of mid-Atlantic/north-eastern USA rabies epizootic in raccoons... Thousands of raccoons have been imported into the mid-Atlantic area for hunting purposes yearly."

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, several thousand of these raccoons purportedly had proper inter-state shipping documentation and health certificates. But many of them were held in cages with other raccoons - which were rabid - at different stages of the shipping process, invalidating the legal paperwork. In 1992, after it was obvious the situation had gotten out of hand, Virginia began putting some teeth into its enforcement of the Lacey Act, which had originally been written to help prevent similar types of man-made wildlife imbalances. Shippers of nearly 3,000 raccoons worth almost $57,000 were fined, and one was jailed, before it was all over.

But the damage had already been done.

Just One Bite

You're probably aware that rabies is a fatal disease for most household pets. Thanks to effective wildlife control and vaccines, of the tens of thousands of Americans who get bitten by a rabid animal every year, "only" two or three die. In 2003, the first American to die from rabies contracted through a raccoon was a 25-year-old from, of all places, Virginia.

Some people may say that's an insignificant ratio of human death compared to years and years of hunting enjoyment. How many other people accidentally have gotten shot while hunting, for example (which, of course, depends on whether Dick Cheney has a Virginia hunting license)?  So I'm not going to peg the death of this poor young Virginian on the coon hunters who violated the Lacey Act thirty years ago.

And who's to say that having raccoon-born rabies consuming the eastern seaboard hasn't kept the region's veterinarians and vaccine suppliers busy?

But how much of this was necessary? Is coon hunting that valuable to the human race? Don't the government and wildlife experts have a legitimate reason to regulate the interstate transport of animals for the protection of society? Aren't we just making life that much more complicated by pushing the boundaries of rationality? After all: if you add up all of the rules and regulations intended to counteract things like disease disbursement, don't you end up with the lethargic bureaucracy we keep lamenting our government has become?

At some point, Americans are going to have to come to the realization that in a society, very few personal actions take place in a vacuum. Don't underestimate the interconnectedness of one person's inability to take personal responsibility for their actions and the government's need to protect everyone else from those people.

Not that innovation and entrepreneurialism need to come to a screeching stop because we might risk causing something bad that we can't think of yet. Like I've said, coon hunting as a sport is one thing, since people who find it fun also help control the population of a varmint that can wreak a lot of havoc. Yet isn't violating interstate wildlife transport laws - which were designed to protect us - simply further proof that government regulations tend to exist for a reason?

Not all of them, certainly, but enough of 'em.

If we'd all think beyond our own interests, one person's rest and recreation has less chance of becoming somebody else's rules and regulations.

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