Down the Rabbit Hole: A Guide To Rabies Videos

by Lindsay Robertson


There are more than one hundred rabid raccoons in Central Park this summer. There are probably rabid raccoons in a lot of places this summer. There are also, it turns out, quite a lot of rabies-related videos available on YouTube. The other day I found one after watching a completely innocent video of an adorable (non-rabid) raccoon, and couldn’t stop watching videos related to rabies, for hours. The most common types of YouTube rabies videos, of pets and children with a foam-like substance on their mouths, will not be included because they’re not nearly as cute or interesting as their uploaders seem to think they are.

A very unscientific survey revealed to me that almost all American children go through a phase where they are obsessed with rabies. This part of child development usually occurs after the child has first viewed the classic film “Old Yeller,” in which a boy named Travis’s beloved pet dog is attacked by a wolf and contracts rabies, or “hydrophobia,” as they call it in the movie because they’re simple folk. Usually a loyal and trusted friend, Old Yeller, in the grip of the disease, turns into a violent monster. Travis is forced to kill Old Yeller with a shotgun.

This movie is effective on children because unless they’re psychopaths, it makes them sad. A viewing of “Old Yeller” is in some cases a child’s first introduction to a whole host of big ideas: compassionate euthanasia, the danger that lurks outside the home, the moment when a child becomes an adult, the concept of a loved one turning into someone no longer recognizable or even bad, even just the idea that pets die.

The viewing of “Old Yeller” is such a common experience in American childhoods that it had its own (funny) scene on “Friends.”

So any exploration of rabies-related online videos must naturally start with “Old Yeller.” Someone has, handily, already put together a clip that contains “all the rabies parts.” If you’ve never seen “Old Yeller,” this will explain what the big deal is. If you did see it as a child, it will probably trigger some pretty strong emotions, beginning with dread. (You might also wonder “How did they get a cow to act rabid?” and giggle once again at the obvious pile of random fur that we’re supposed to believe is the dead wolf.)

Rabies is a virus that, untreated, is fatal to all warm-blooded animals. (This presumably includes whales, dolphins, and duck-billed platypus, but nobody knows for sure.) It’s usually spread by animal bites and causes flu-like symptoms, acute pain, extreme excitement, mania, encephalitis, excessive saliva (foaming at the mouth), depression, hydrophobia and, finally, death. Symptoms can show up as early as ten days or as late as two years after a bite. A person bitten by an animal that could have rabies needs to get shots within ten days of the bite or exposure. Contrary to popular belief, the shots are no more painful than a flu shot. They stopped doing the multiple shots in the stomach with a long needle thing in the U.S. quite a while ago. (Whenever I tried to pet a squirrel as a child, my mother would caution “Twenty shots in the tummy with a long needle!,” and I would stop.)

People have died from rabies after simply finding a bat in their bed, without noticing a bite. There are memorials to some of them on YouTube. If you find a bat in your bed, go to the doctor. Bats are the leading cause of rabies in the U.S. and the U.K., which has eradicated rabies completely except for bats.

Now, to the real-life rabid animals. Note: this should be obvious, but these videos are of very sick animals just before their deaths, so feel yourself out before clicking.

This is a baby deer with rabies.

This is a raccoon with rabies, and a woman realizing it and feeling very sad. Non-rabid raccoons are not usually out and about during the day, and this one has the spasms that are a symptom of the disease:

The easiest way to spot rabies in a wild animal is to notice that that wild animal isn’t running away from you as fast as it can. This is why children are warned to resist the temptation to pet animals that aren’t scared of them. There are exceptions for urban squirrels and the like, but you probably shouldn’t pet them, either.

The young men who encountered this almost-certainly rabid deer should have known better than to let it hang out with them or whatever it seems to be trying to do.

The deer stopped suddenly when he stepped in the water. That’s where the hydrophobia comes in. Hydrophobia is the scariest and most fascinating symptom of rabies. Sufferers experience extremely painful throat and stomach spasms when water is offered to them, or even when the word “water” is said aloud. It’s said that in olden times, people would throw people with rabies in tubs of water in an effort to cure them, which must have been unspeakably painful hospice care.

Here’s a recent interview with a man who was attacked in a parking lot by a rabid fox and had to fight it off for several minutes, all of which were captured on security video. The video itself is there too, and it’s crazy. And also the interviewer says: “You look pretty good for a guy who was attacked by a rabid fox.”

Then there’s another kind of rabies video- one that won’t be in this post. Rabies may be rare in humans in the western world, but an estimated 55,000 people die from the disease every year worldwide, mostly in Asia and Africa, most after being bitten by stray dogs.

In what appears in every way to be a good-faith effort to educate health workers, people in those countries have put up many videos of rabies sufferers, in many cases, children, unable to drink water because of hydrophobia. They’re unwatchable, especially with the knowledge that it’s too late for anyone to do anything for them. Don’t go looking for them. (Instead, maybe consider a donation to The Alliance for Rabies Control, which is working to eradicate rabies in the developing world.)

Finally, here’s what rabies doesn’t look like: non-rabid baby raccoons playing in a hammock. Awww!:

Lindsay Robertson is weird in what she hopes is “a good way.”