Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Never Ending Shame - Part II

NOTE: Please read 'A never ending shame Part I' before this post' Otherwise what is described below won’t make the slightest bit of sense, I promise.


It was a race against time. Within a week several mysterious deaths occurred amongst the wild rabbit population. One fear was that the parasite or its eggs was being picked up in sheep faeces by rabbits. It was thought inevitable that the local dog population would become infected, and that the infection would therefore spread back to humans with potentially disastrous consequences. Fortunately, I was in the area and could offer my services. I had recently developed a new medicinal compound based on liquorice, nettle leaves and the juice of a Paraguayan species of rhododendron which I had collected on a recent trip to South America. I had a hunch it may be effective against this particular worm (I have to admit now it was a total shot in the dark). I told the local mayor that my compounnd might prove effective, but that, as a responsible scientist, I needed to conduct further field trials. I tried it on some stray dogs but they simply vomited irrespective of dose or preparation. It was Denise (my faithul receptionist) who then suggested rabbits. They seemed to be a key host for the parasite. I told the mayor I needed some rabbits, but his rabbit catcher was on holiday in the Azores so he offered me his daughter’s pet flop-eared rabbit instead. At first I declined, but the mayor reminded me that I owed him a favour (the details are not important), and so I took the animal into my care.

The next day I handed the rabbit back in good health, with the pronouncement that the compound was seemingly well tolerated. I did not say that the drug was a vaccine, nor that it would actually cure the infection. In no time at all though, young girls and their mothers were lining up outside the laboratory to have their rabbit 'vaccinated'. I gave Angus McCavity the duty of keeping them all sweet whilst I worked out how to get hold of something that was actually sick from the parasite.

It didn't take me long. I was out walking in a nearby field when I saw a fox lurching from side to side. It didn't look at all well, and my guess was it had eaten an infected wild rabbit. I went back for some gloves and a lab coat and took the fox back to the lab. I strapped it down on the table and poured some of the thick black liquid down its throat. I waited for a reaction, listening to the gentle bubble of conversation outside and the tiny sounds of ‘thank you sir’ as another pet bunny rabbit was 'vaccinated'.

Twenty minutes later the fox suddenly evacuated its bowels before throwing up, rolling it's eyes and issuing its death rattle. Some little amount of blood seeped from its nostrils.

At that moment I experienced a feeling of panic like never before. I could not breathe, and my heart began to race at such a speed I momentarily thought I might suffer a myocardial infarction. My immediate reaction was to stay rooted to the spot, for fear of what I might see when I left the room. But somehow, and with an enormous strength of will I never knew I possessed, I managed to extricate myself from the armchair and walk outside.

What greeted me was the sight of about a hundred children, accompanied by at least one parent, cuddling their beloved pets. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the lilting sounds of happy children filled the summer air.

The feeling of panic began to subside. I was able to ask McCavity how it had gone, and he replied that none of the rabbits had reacted badly. It then struck me that the fox had likely expired from the parasite rather than my medicine. The next thing that struck me was the clenched fist of the mayor, driving hard into the pit of my stomach. He had, unseen by myself, approached from the left. I fell to the ground, winded and groaning with the pain. He, unsympathetic to my predicament, hoisted me up. His whisky-tainted breath and red-eyes suggested to me that he had been drinking heavily, a hunch confirmed when he started talking.

'You f**cking little.....' came out several times, followed by some piece of male or female anatomy. Interspersed with the expletives were statements that led me to believe, as I hung in my lab coat that he kept firmly gripped with one hand, that I was responsible for the death of his daughter's pet rabbit. I was of course mortified, but my scientific training nonetheless caused me to try and explain (in layman’s terms) that the rabbit could have died from a number of competing causes. It was a useless attempt at reason. He would hear nothing of it. He gave me another good punch to the stomach and let me drop. As I hit the ground I heard the sound of a small child crying and wailing to its mother. I couldn't make out everything the child was saying from my prostrated position, as one ear was pressed into the ground, but I did make out some keywords which strung together sounded something like 'Mummy.......stopped breathing....turning blue.....mummy, help him'. At this point I fainted from the pain.

Two days later, every pet rabbit in the town was dead. One hundred and ninety three bunnies (including seven prize winning specimens) were buried in shallow graves in one hundred and thirty back gardens. Two hundred and seventy children entered a period of mourning. Nearly four hundred parents signed a petition demanding that my 'quack's circus' left the town never to return. The mayor told me that if he ever saw my name in print pretending to be a scientist that he would skin me alive. As we left town, crestfallen, the townspeople stood on the side of the road with a look of collective disgust on their faces. Some of them held up pictures of their rabbits.

It was at this point that the Cumbernauld Institute of Parasitology became homeless. I am now forced to move from community to community whenever someone realises that I was responsible for the massacre of the town’s bunnies. Fortunately that doesn't happen too often, and I have been able to keep my mobile suite of laboratories in some fields for several months undetected. In each place I try to uphold my commitment to science, and no-one to this day, if they know the facts, cannot say I am not truthful in my endeavours. It is nonetheless a constant source of shame that I allowed myself to be persuaded by people who understand nothing about my art. It will never happen again.


(Footnote: Two weeks after my departure the epidemic subsided. It did not cross into the domestic dog population as feared. Once in sheep, it was shed in their faeces and ingested by other sheep and also, crucially, by rabbits, which were a dead-end host. The original species-jump from man to sheep was eventually revealed to have occurred through the efforts of a mosquito that was in the luggage of the travellers. The mosquito must have bitten the poor father, ingested some eggs that were in his blood, and then bitten one of the sheep, presumably after the mosquito had mated with a local compatible species (only female mosquitoes take a bloodmeal and only once per gonotrophic cycle). Any supposed biblical tryst between poor father and his ungulate companion is therefore totally unfounded, and shame on you for thinking that may have been the case. The lurching fox was a red-herring, as I found no parasite. I think it had just been drinking. Once the wild rabbit population had perished, the parasite had no-where else to go, especially as all the domestic bunnies were already dead, poor wee things).

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