Why I Sneeze at My Cat

Allergic reactions to domestic cats are common—more common than dog allergies, for example. People can, after a first exposure, become allergic to almost anything; the allergy is simply the response of the immune system to a stimulus it perceives as threatening. Almost all animals will cause allergies in a percentage of the people who habitually handle them. For example, I’ve known of laboratory workers who developed allergies to grasshoppers and armadillos. This is simply a flaw in the human immune system. In the case of cats and other mammals, it’s usually the dander that provokes the reaction—the dead cells of the epidermis, which all of us mammals continually and involuntarily slough.

A hint about the nature of cat allergies comes from an unexpected direction. Scientists studying a lemur-like primate called the slow loris found that it defends itself from predators with a venomous bite. The venom is secreted by glands on the loris’s arms, then licked onto the teeth. Mother slow lorises rub this venom onto the coats of their young. When the mother is away from the nest, the poison protects the young from predators. Scientists have analyzed this venom and found its active components chemically similar to the allergenic components in cat dander. This finding suggests cat dander is a defense mechanism, a deterrent. Predators with more sensitive noses than ours might be repelled by the dander, or might have been at some earlier stage, before the attackers or the cats themselves evolved away from this dynamic. Perhaps this has something to do with the cat’s habit of raising its hackles when it feels threatened—a method of flinging noxious dander. In any event, these speculations, if they prove true, help to explain why cats are disproportionately represented among the sources of allergy.

Another Chimpanzee Attack

A pet chimpanzee has inflicted what police call "life-threatening" and "life-changing" injuries on a 55-year-old woman. That last phrase would seem to refer to the fact that the chimp bit off the woman's hands and devastated her face. The attack took place in Stamford, Connecticut, and the victim was a family friend well acquainted with the chimp.

TV news reports have already latched onto a couple of "explanations." One is Lyme disease; the ape was being treated for it. A doctor interviewed for one of these stories claims the disease can cause psychotic behavior in people. The ape had apparently been behaving badly all day, and in fact the victim had come to help calm him. Still, this doesn't really look like psychotic behavior so much as ordinary chimp behavior. Adult chimps, especially males, are simply prone to solve their problems, and even their passing irritations, with violence. Dozens of violent encounters, both in zoos and in the wild, attest this. Most readers probably became aware of the danger chimps pose only when the story of St James Davis hit the news a few years back. Davis was disfigured and left near death when chimps escaped from a wildlife refuge where he was visiting his own poet chimp, which had been removed from his home after some violent episodes of its own. That incident was especially horrific in its details, but not inconsistent with other examples of chimp behavior.

On the other hand, there's the question of psychotropic drugs. Some reports mention that the owner tried to tranquilize the ape with Xanax. I also wonder what it means that he was under treatment for Lyme disease. It's a real disease that can be effectively treated in its early stages, but it is also a controversial diagnosis for patients with long-term immune dysfunctions. In other words, a lot of people diagnosed with Lyme's probably don't have it, but they end up heavily medicated on dubious evidence.

I wonder who diagnosed this ape and what sort of medication he was given. I'm not impugning anyone, but these factors are relevant to behavior. Our medical system often leads to people being medicated inappropriately with psychotropics that can influence them to psychotic behavior. If somebody's giving these dubious medications to semi-wild animals--well, it's a recipe for disaster.

News Report

Follow-up on Big Cat Attacks

This week brings follow-up stories on some notorious big cat attacks.

First, there are further details on the jaguar that mauled a zookeeper in Baltimore on January 18.

Next, the San Francisco Chronicle has interviewed some of the police officers who killed Tatiana the tiger on Christmas 2007.

I also came across an article hyping the one-time-only return of Roy Horn for a TV special. Horn, of Siegfried and Roy fame, was mauled on stage by a white tiger in 2003. He nearly died of a stroke in the aftermath and had to have part of his skull removed to relieve pressure. The last I heard, he was still learning to walk again. Now they're claiming he's been working with animals in preparation for this comeback, which is a charity event. I'm not sure how much tiger-taming he plans to do on TV. In theory, a person who limps should never step into a cage with a big carnivore. They often see any sign of weakness as an invitation to pounce.

Of course, in theory, it's a bad idea for ANYBODY to step into a cage with a tiger. . .

Wheel bugs

Reader Steve V. alerted me to the incredible niftiness of the wheel bug. This is one of the assassin bugs, and its tubular beak can pierce human skin. Some victims claim this bite is more painful than some wasp stings.

Here’s a good article on the wheel bug.
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