Busting the Rabies Myth
It’s interesting to note is that not a single primate (non-human, that is!) euthanized after biting a human in the USA and then rabies tested, has ever tested positive! To the best of our knowledge, there has never been a positive rabies test in a Vervet Monkey in South Africa, though we are aware, and publicise the fact, that as with any mammal (humans included), it is possible for a Vervet Monkey to become infected with the rabies virus if directly exposed to it.
Whilst this information is not directly pertinent to the unsupported public fear, fueled by uninformed vets and human doctors alike, that free-ranging Vervet Monkeys are “rabies carriers”, please share it with everyone you think would find the information of use in our ongoing efforts to bust the myth of Vervet Monkeys being “rabies carriers”.
Due to the understandable fear associated with the horror of rabies, Monkey Helpline is frequently contacted for information about Vervet Monkeys and “rabies”. Free-ranging Vervets commonly eat foods that might result in “foamy-type” saliva collecting on the lips around the mouth, which is then incorrectly believed to be a sign of “rabies”, and more so if the animal concerned shows “defensive aggression” or just chatters when approached by a human. Another common misconception is that the repetitive alarm calls, particularly by various categories of male Vervets, and sometimes also occurring during the dead of night, are an indication that the monkey is “injured and calling out in pain”, or is “rabid”. It cannot be stressed enough that everyone involved in working with Vervet Monkeys, at every level and in every capacity, must educate the public with regard to the “truth about Vervet Monkeys and rabies”!
An interesting point to keep in mind and use when appropriate is that during the numerous talks and public presentations given by Carol and I every year to many thousands of people, of all ages and in diverse areas, about monkeys and our work with them, we constantly have to respond to “statements” and questions about Vervets and rabies. However, not once have I ever heard anyone expressing concern about stray dogs and rabies, even whilst it is a reality that rabies is rife in free-roaming, unvaccinated dogs, especially in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and that every person walking or cycling in or close to an urban area or a rural settlement is always at risk of being bitten by such a dog, and then contracting rabies.
Our thoughts on how it is that Vervets have avoided becoming rabies-infected, are that because they are so astute at recognising and responding to “body language”, Vervets see and sense the strange behavior of a rabid dog or other animal and avoid it as a precaution against being attacked by the dog/other animal. And it must be kept in mind that dogs are predators, and even a small dog can deliver a fatal bite to a full-grown monkey, hence monkeys instinctively avoid random contact with dogs a safety precaution. Obviously they have an understanding of the danger of physical injury and death, but have no concept of the “rabies danger”. It is also historically possible that there have been instances when a rabid dog/other animal did managed to attack, bite and infect a free-ranging Vervet Monkey, but the monkey has died from the bite injuries before actually contracting full-blown, transmissible rabies!
We all have the responsibility of emphasizing the importance of rabies vaccinations for domestic dogs and cats, or any other rabies-vulnerable pets and livestock, particularly in a rabies-declared area like KZN where it is compulsory to have your dogs vaccinated against rabies.
State funded rabies vaccinations, given independently of other vaccinations, whether by a private vet or a state vet, are FREE!
So deep is the myth about Vervets and rabies etched into peoples’ minds that just about any defensive behavior by Vervets, in response to a real or imagined threat, is interpreted as being a sign that the animal is rabid! People are hugely relieved when told that NO Vervet Monkey in South Africa has ever been recorded as being rabies infected!
This female Vervet Monkey had just seen her baby, struck and killed by a car as they crossed the road, picked up by a rescuer and put into the back of the car. The rescuer had been called by a jogger who, unaware that a dead baby Vervet lay below the bank next to the road, believed that the mother Vervet’s protective aggression towards him was in fact the behavior of a “rabid” monkey. The jogger left the scene before the rescuer arrived in response to a second caller who, whilst walking by, noticed the dead baby Vervet and realized that the female Vervet was threatening passers-by in an effort to protect her baby who she was still trying to coax into following her, so called Monkey Helpline to assist. By coincidence the rescuer was at social event a few days later and overheard a person there telling a group of people how just a few days earlier he had narrowly avoided being attacked by a “rabid monkey” whilst out jogging! Needless to say, this set the stage for an education session on “Vervets and the Myth about Rabies”!