Mad Dogs and Letters to the Editor

September 1893 came at the end of a bad rabies outbreak in the Albany and Port Elizabeth regions. The 1893 Rabies Act had been passed by the Cape Parliament earlier in the year: by law, all dogs now had to be on a chain and muzzled in public. If this seems like an overreaction, it wasn’t, or if it was, it was not by much.

Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux, in France, had developed a rabies vaccine only in 1885, and it wasn’t yet widespread. Grocott’s of 8 September 1893 reported that one Mr Fraser “who some time ago was bitten by a supposed mad dog, left Port Elizabeth by the next steamer for Paris. Arrived at the latter town, he placed himself under [the care of]Dr Pasteur …” After a series of injections of increasingly concentrated dried rabies virus, Fraser was declared to be free of rabies, to everyone’s relief.

At the time, rabies was incurable and usually fatal. Today, it is still incurable and usually fatal. This is why it is so important to get post-exposure prophylaxis for rabies if you are bitten by a stray dog, cat or bat. Rabies, or hydrophobia as it was also known, was even more of a problem in the days before it was possible to vaccinate animals against it.

In April 1893, dogs began dying in large numbers in Port Elizabeth. At first, poison was suspected, but when investigators figured out that it was rabies, panic ensued. The first suggestion was to muzzle all dogs, and to kill those that did not wear a muzzle. This went badly, because the men tasked with carrying out this order ignored the fact that many dogs belonging to wealthy people didn’t wear muzzles and therefore could spread rabies. Instead, they killed only dogs belonging to poor people, whether or not they were muzzled.

Obviously, this didn’t do anything to stop the epidemic. When it became obvious that it was the pets of wealthy people driving the epidemic, the Member of Parliament for Grahamstown – who, we are told, considered Port Elizabethans to be weak city-slickers – suggested that although he was sorry for the dogs and their owners, it would be in the best interest of public health to exterminate all dogs. Very quickly, the wealthier citizens of Port Elizabeth agreed to muzzle their dogs and to keep them at home. At least, mostly: some people still allowed their dogs to roam.

By the middle of August 1893, the situation was dire: a young girl had died of rabies, and uninfected pedigree dogs were being smuggled out of PE to avoid being put down. Owners could be fined £50 or sentenced to three months in jail for having an unmuzzled dog. Not everyone listened.

Into the middle of this stepped ‘Resident’, a concerned Grahamstonian who had some questions and suggestions about the muzzling law. He had seen a number of people in Grahamstown walking dogs that were chained but not muzzled. “I protest,”  he wrote to the Editor of Grocott’s, “that it is a most dangerous course [of action]… Dogs kept upon the chain are generally somewhat out of temper, and if a passer-by happens to brush up against them, or their master, nothing is more probable than … a nip. Again, dogs on the chain are generally struggling to investigate something just beyond their reach. Hence, in a thoroughfare at all crowded, a passer-by is very likely to get between the dog and his owner, and, perhaps further, to get the dog’s chain between his legs, and circumstances then become somewhat mixed.”

‘Resident’ thought that it was pointless to chain a dog unless it was muzzled. Furthermore, he thought it was pointless to chain a dog that was muzzled: since they couldn’t bite, he reasoned, they couldn’t spread rabies, and could safely be “at large and taking healthful exercise.” But he concluded that it would be better to follow the letter of the law: “since they are to be chained, they certainly at the same time ought to be muzzled.”

Rabies isn’t common in Grahamstown anymore, but it is a problem in other parts of South Africa, especially KwaZulu-Natal. It is easy to prevent rabies outbreaks by vaccinating your pets and making sure that their vaccinations stay up to date. Your pet might not like going to the vet, but a bit of barking, meowing and sulking is better than getting this horrible disease.

 Queries, suggestions, tips and corrections to nervousflamingo@gmail.com

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