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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Column: The wombat menace

I’m terrified of sharks. I shriek at spiders and bawl around bees. Heck, I’ve been known to jump around like a loon at the sight of a mosquito-hawk (they’re like spiders with wings!). I simply expect certain animals to attack me.

But wombats?

News headlines last week told the story of freak wombat violence:

“Rogue wombat…”

“Wombat combat…”

“Crazed wombat killed by axeman…”

On Apr. 6, a man named Bruce Kringle was walking through the Australian bush when he accidentally stepped on a wombat. The wombat got angry. Super angry. It jumped on his chest, biting and scratching him for 20 minutes. Kringle was rescued when his neighbor ran out with an axe and killed the insane wombat with a blow to the head.

Animal-control folks said the wombat had a bad case of mange – a nasty, itchy disease where mites live on your skin and make your hair fall out. They said the animal was probably irritated by the disease and felt threatened by Kringle. I don’t think stepping on the wombat helped either. BBC news reported “local people had complained about a rogue wombat in the area in recent days.”

Wombats are three-foot-long marsupials that look like giant guinea pigs. They have claws and big front teeth used for eating bark and roots, but they are usually harmless. This incident makes me wonder: What causes peaceful creatures to suddenly attack?

Bruno Chomel, professor of population health and reproduction at UC Davis, said the only disease that makes animals turn violent is rabies. He said many animals react differently to the rabies virus. Cats will typically get quiet and sulk in a corner; dogs, meanwhile, are infamously aggressive.

“They have this need to bite and it’s basically because of the location of the virus in the brain,” Chomel said.

The rabies virus can be transmitted to any warm-blooded animal through saliva/blood transfer. The virus, called Rhabdoviridae, spreads from the blood to the spinal cord and then the brain. Animal behavior changes when rabies hits the central nervous system, so there is often a delay between infection and when the animal starts to show rabies symptoms.

“That’s why when we quarantine dogs, we quarantine them for 10 days,” Chomel said.

People don’t get rabies very often. Humans usually contract the disease by getting too close to infected animals. Even when people avoid sick animals, you still hear about cases where a dog or raccoon attacked out of nowhere. Word of wisdom: Avoid bats – they’re notorious rabies-carriers. Luckily, infected humans do not react like dogs; there is no Romero-esque violence.

“People who have rabies do not go and bite other people,” Chomel explained.

I asked Chomel if mange could cause aggression in a wombat.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s just that the animal is sick.”

The wombat was probably feeling gross and annoyed at being stepped on. It reacted with irrational rage – just as I do when I’m sick and grumpy. I worried that maybe the wombat had rabies, too, but Chomel said only bats in Australia get rabies.

“In Australia, they do not have terrestrial rabies, so a wombat is not a major concern,” Chomel said.

Just a couple days after Kringle’s episode came another wombat attack. A boy was walking on the island of Tasmania when a wombat walked by and “cuddled” his leg. Then it bit him! There are pictures online of this sad looking 12-year-old with chomp-marks on his leg. It wasn’t rabies, but something caused this epidemic of violence.

For a wimp like me, Australia is a death trap. The outback is home to crocodiles, venomous snakes and deadly spiders. Great white sharks cruise the beaches. Dingoes run around eating infants.

Maybe the wombats felt left out. 

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT thinks you should know another crazy wombat fact: They have square poops! It’s true! Scientists think wombats poop in little cubes so the poop won’t roll away when they use it to mark territory. E-mail her at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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