Attention: ornithophiles (bird lovers), felinophiles (cat lovers), and Bobbie Yeo, Lee County Humane Society director. An article in The New York Times (Jan. 29) captioned “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think” contains some startling information on the numbers of birds and small mammals, mostly native, killed in the U.S. by free ranging cats and feral cats each year. Research conducted by the Smithsonian Biological Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals that cats are responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals annually, a kill rate two to four times greater than previously estimated, making house cats one of the most serious threats to the nation’s wildlife. The researchers report that “more birds and small mammals die in the mouths of cats than are killed by auto strikes, pesticides, and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic (human related) causes.” Wildlife conservationists continue to urge owners of house cats to keep them indoors and most strongly oppose the “trap, vaccinate, neuter, and release “ feral cat programs being financed and/or conducted by well intentioned but misguided people and organizations such as the Lee County Humane Society.
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Arachnophobia is described as a pathological fear of spiders and scorpions. Of the 900 species of spiders occurring in Alabama, the vast majority are considered to be beneficial. Only four are dangerous to humans: the brown recluse, which has a fiddle-shaped mark on its back and three widow spiders, which are similar in appearance and commonly called black widows. I read somewhere that most people bitten by black widows were sitting in outdoor toilets.
Worldwide, about 1,000 species of scorpions have been described, 25 of which have venom dangerous to humans. Seventy species occur in the United States, 60 of which are found in Arizona and southern California. I am familiar with a few of these, one of which is large and formidable in appearance, but is not dangerous to humans. Another, the bark scorpion, is slender, yellowish in color, and only about three inches long, but its sting can cause death. Only two species, both small, have been reported to occur in Alabama, the Hertz scorpion and the Carolina scorpion. At least one occurs in these parts, and it occasionally enters houses. Neither is dangerous but their stings can be somewhat painful. I have been stung twice by scorpions in Alabama, one time when I was in the woods in a sleeping bag, and the other not long ago when I was lying in my bed. In neither instance was the pain I experienced half as bad as the stings of bees and wasps I’ve had.
An article in the February issue of National Geographic relates the incidence of a man being stung by a bark scorpion in Mexico. He said the pain was excruciating, but within 30 hours of receiving antivenom the pain was gone. For eight years the man had suffered from a kind of spinal arthritis that caused a pain in his back every morning, and that during flare-ups the pain was so horrible he couldn’t walk. Not long after he had been stung by the bark scorpion, his back pains went away, and two years later he says he has been essentially pain free and off his medications. He averred, “If that pain came back, I’d let that scorpion sting me again.”
The magazine article was devoted to research being conducted to determine how components of animal venoms may be, and in some cases already have been, useful in treating human illnesses. Following are some examples. The Brazilian pit viper’s venom led to the development of a class of drugs called ACE inhibitors, now being widely used to treat hypertension. A proteinaceous component in the venom of the Eastern green mamba is being studied for potential use in treating hypertension, heart disease and kidney disorders. The venom of the black mamba has a component with huge potential as a powerful pain killer. The venom of the giant deathstalker scorpion has an ingredient useful in revealing the precise location of brain cancer cells, facilitating their removal.
The Gila monster is the only venomous lizard in the country, and its venom is used in a preparation called Exenatide, which helps diabetics to produce their own insulin and to lose weight. The article states, “To diabetics, the Gila monster is a superhero.”
Zoltan Takacs, a toxicologist and herpetologist, states that so far fewer than a thousand toxins have been screened for medicinal value. A dozen or so major drugs have made it to the market, “and there may be upwards of 20 million toxins out there waiting to be screened.”
Arachnophobes and ophidiophobes (snake haters) should read the article cited herein. It should make them more aware of how some of the creepy-crawlies they dislike are actually pharmacological treasures.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.