The wildlife in my neighborhood is as precious to me as my own pets. I feed many of them, and find joy in the up-close-and-personal moments they share with me. This spring was particularly bounteous for the ducks on the 1-acre retention pond abutting my property, with one young flock of 12 exceptionally bold and social ducklings staking claim to my backyard. They scold me when the feeder goes empty. They complain when my dog herds them into the water, then taunt him by bobbing just beyond wading range. When one of the ducks turned up dead, I was sad. When it floated on the pond for three days, I became alarmed. I missed my little friends, the rest of whom were nowhere to be seen, and worried that the water might become contaminated and dangerous for the fish, toads, turtles and my dog.
Reports of West Nile Virus flashed through my mind.
Unsure who might be responsible for removal of dead wildlife, I phoned the Mayor"s Action Center, only to begin a frustrating, circuitous trail of calls that led me through the Department of Health to Mosquito Control and right back to the Mayor"s Office.
The dead duck still floated in my pond.
Not only would no one come pick up this creature, no one gave me answers about where to turn. I was trapped in the Little Red Hen story: Who will help me remove this dead bird? Not I, said the Mayor"s Office; not I, said the Department of Health.
According to the Mayor"s Action Center, the city will pick up dead animals either 1. only if they"re on public property (i.e.: roadkill), 2. only if they"re on dry land or 3. not at all. It seems to depend on the mood of the person taking the call - at least, that"s all I can figure out. Mosquito Control will pick up only crows, blue jays and raptors so they can test for the West Nile Virus - and they prefer them fresh: dead less than 24 to 48 hours. The Department of Health didn"t seem to want any part of picking up dead animals at all.
What"s worse, the advice I got from the Mayor"s Action Center changed every time I spoke to them, ranging from a snippy, "Can"t you scoop it out yourself?" to a futile, "Don"t you have a neighborhood association you can call to scoop it out and dispose of it?"
I called the neighborhood association. They scooped. They disposed. I mourned the undignified end of the innocent little life, but after a few days, the rest of the gang returned to cheer me up.
Lingering concerns about West Nile Virus led me back to the phone loop for information. Minus the urgency of present death, I got a lot further. The virus first appeared in New York in the fall of 1999, and reached Indiana last summer - spread, it"s assumed, by migratory birds. Since it arrived in the U.S. three years ago, the virus has killed only 18 people - none in Indiana. There is no vaccine, no cure.
The virus is spreading; it has been documented in all but three states east of the Mississippi, and as far west as Nebraska. Jim Howell, DVM and epidemiologist working for the Indiana State Department of Health, says it"s important that people know the virus is present in Indiana so they can protect themselves.
The blood-born virus is transferred from duck to mosquito to mammal (or other fowl). Although Howell says there is no known risk to humans from contact with birds or other infected animals, the Department of Health"s Web site recommends avoiding bare-handed contact with sick and dead animals.
Within three to 15 days after an infected mosquito bites, symptoms can occur. They start with high fever, severe headache and rash, and can graduate to stiff neck, muscle weakness, swollen lymph nodes, stupor, paralysis, convulsions, coma or death. Howell indicates that some people may have minor cases without knowing it or suffering from it. He adds, "Any age group can get it. It tends to be more severe in those over 50 and those with compromised immune systems."
It"s best to consult a doctor if symptoms occur, but, as with many viral infections, treating the symptoms is the best that can be done. "Antibiotics don"t work," Howell says.
Prevention is the best way to minimize the already low risk of contracting the virus. Howell lists two methods of prevention: change your environment and change your personal habits.
ï Personal: Because mosquitoes are "night biters" attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, Howell cautions against sitting outside after dark. Long sleeves and pants protect against bites, but when the weather is just too hot, he recommends mosquito repellent. "It has to contain DEET," he stresses.
ï Environment: Jim Erwin, Mosquito Control"s chief biologist who has been testing pools of mosquitoes throughout the state since June 2001, advises eliminating mosquito breeding grounds. It takes only two to four days for mosquito larvae to hatch. "Clean your gutters and birdbaths," he suggests. "Empty small containers, old tires and kiddie pools. Turn them over so they don"t collect water." If you have standing water in ditches, call Mosquito Control (317-359-9723). Take advantage of the mosquito-fish program: Mosquito Control will stock ornamental ponds with minnows to help reduce the mosquito population. Howell also suggests ensuring screens fit tightly.
The Department of Health"s Web site provides more information about the virus, its symptoms and where in the state it has been found: www.in.gov/isdh. If you encounter a dead jay, crow or raptor, I advise skipping the Mayor"s Action Center and going to either the Web site or Mosquito Control. If it"s just a nice little Mallard in your community pond, save yourself the time and hassle of calling anyone. Scoop out the poor thing yourself - or find someone with a strong enough stomach to do it for you.