You know you have fallen in with the right sort of people when dinner conversation turns to exchanging wildlife trivia.
I had first planned to make a single blog post sort of cataloging the dinner conversation, but after googling one or two of the many topics we covered, I realized that that I had fodder for many a weeks' worth of writing and researching here!
One of the guests, a Greek filmmaker named Vassily, mentioned that he thought he saw a fox in Berlin the other day. The rest of us Berliner's enthusiastically recounted our fox encounters. I have seen three so far. The first one was in a green space across from Vigo's school. The second was on Greifswalderstraße, near where we live, and the third was in Helmholzplatz. I am expecting some day to see one at Wasserturm, because that hill is swarming with rabbits.
After my first fox sighting, before I could read German, I investigated city foxes and landed on a London city website which explained that foxes were nothing to worry about and don't bother calling animal control, because they won't remove any foxes from anyone's back garden. I related all of my remembered and misremembered information from that website, assuring everyone that foxes are perfectly harmless urban wild animals.
I can't easily find that website now, as the story of the twin babies who were mauled by a fox in their home is taking up all the top Google spots.
I falsely stated that foxes do not carry rabies. Foxes in the UK do not carry rabies because they do not have rabies in the UK. They are as susceptible to the disease as any other canine.
Our hostess, Johanna, said that she had heard that you can actually get a very rare, giant, brain-eating tape worm from fox urine. It lodges in your organs, even your brain, and uses you as an intermediary host or a vehicle to get to the next host, but it will destroy your organs and kill you. For this reason, one is advised to always wash wild berries before consuming them.
Well that is just crazy, right!? After some investigation I discovered that Johanna is confused. There is not a giant, brain-eating tapeworm you can get from fox urine. There is a brain-destroying tapeworm you can get from fox feces and a different but equally-rare giant parasite you can get from undercooked freshwater fish or frogs, who get the parasite from fox urine. Then there is a third bacterial infection you can also get from contact with the urine of an infected animal. Apparently house pets sometimes get it from licking up the urine of infected mice.
One important thing to note is that any zoonose you can get from a fox you can also get from a normal old dog. Also, the fish parasite can be spread by any mammal who likes to eat fish, including raccoons, skunks, opossums, and cats. None of these weird rare parasites or bacteria is specific to the fox.
So, let's break down the potential parasitic and bacterial menace of the urban fox.
Leptospirosis, aka Weil's disease, is the one you can get from contact with the leptospira bacterium, via the urine of infected animals. Wash those wild berries!
This disease causes flu-like symptoms in its first phase, followed a by a seemingly-healthy lull and then BAM! meningitis and kidney failure.
You treat the pesky microorganism with a complicated mix of antibiotics and treatments for the various symptoms and sequellae.
Giant Kidney Worm
This one is pretty complicated. Let's start with the more sensationalist aspects before getting into the tricky details. First of all, it is giant.
"Adult male worms are 20–40 cm long and 5–6 mm wide; females can grow to 103 cm in length with a width of 10–12 mm. Both sexes appear bright red in color and taper at both the anterior and posterior ends."
Second of all, it lives inside your fucking kidney. It is extremely rare in humans and the only treatment is to remove the thing surgically, often removing the whole darn kidney.
The way you get this creature into your body is by eating freshwater fish or frogs that have consumed the eggs of the worm, which got into the water via the urine of an infected animal (which could be a fox).
It goes like this: I am a disgusting giant worm living with my boyfriend in the kidney of a fox (though any mammal will do). I squirt out some eggs from time to time, which the fox pisses out into a river. A fish swims by and drinks the water. My eggs hatch inside the fish and the little larvae just hang out there biding their time until some carnivorous mammal (rat, raccoon, cat, dog, whatever) comes along to eat the fish. At that point, my little larvae burrow through the animal's intestinal walls and travel around the blood stream, looking for a nice kidney to call home.
warning: gross picture behind that link
Ah, finally! Echinococcus multilocularis! The tapeworm that lives in your brain! (Actually, the worm doesn't live in your brain, its larvae do.)
This one is spread specifically by canids, and since foxes are the wild canids that love to live it up in the big city, it is the one most known to spread the parasite to humans. This worm is a tapeworm, but not too big. It's only 3-6 mm long.
Here's how it works: The canine has a couple tape worms living in its large intestine. These worms get their eggs into the animal's poop. Another animal, such as a rat, a dog, a cat, or a child, ingests the worm eggs via the poo. These eggs then immediately hatch and the larvae burrow through the intestinal walls and travel through the blood to all of your organs, including your lungs and brain. Once they are comfortably settled in they start creating cysts that will eventually kill you if you don't get treatment. Many people who get this parasite have no symptoms for many years. Then they die. The only treatment is to surgically remove the larvae from your organs.
So, Johanna was basically right, except that she had done a bit of chimerical alchemy to combine the three perils into one. To help keep things straight, I have prepared this sloppy infographic.
Despite these alarming parasites, foxes in the city are exciting and I am really glad that they are there. Don't play with dog shit, don't eat raw fish out of the Spree, wash your wild berries, and you should be fine. The Berlin city website has a page about the urban fox. It says that city foxes live in underground burrows in our parks. They eat mice, rats, insects, worms, birds, rabbits, fruits, and berries, and trash.
The fox enriches the fauna of our residential areas. We have the opportunity to share our living space with him, to watch him, and to understand his behavior. With careful conduct a co-existence between animals and humans is possible."
Now I think it appropriate to end this post with a video of the Mighty Boosh skit, Tale of the Crack Fox.
Hopefully, I will find time at some point to also cover our other topics of converstaion: the Bower Bird, the Lyre Bird, the rare Greek krikri, immigration in Greece, penis size in Greek sculpture, Shinto penis fixation, and favorite medieval cities in Germany.