Saturday, May 16, 2009

Edgar Allen Poe and the Mayo Werewolves

August 8, 02

After last week's story, one of my colleagues at work phoned and explained that farmers in Nebraska contend that chickens are for the freezer, not for hypnotizing. Another co-worker told me that my description of mesmerizing chickens is exactly what bird hunters do to train their dogs. They take a pheasant, tuck its head under its wing, rock it a few times and lay it down in some brush where it will stay until the Pointers find them. Then the hunter walks up, nudges the pheasant ever so gently and humanely with the tip of his boot, at which point the bird takes to the air.... and gets shot. So far I haven't had to resort to gunfire upon waking any of my chickens up, but....

We do have way too many roosters. We haven't culled out the boys from our crop of straight run hatchlings that we raised from eggs this winter. The poor hens are taking a beating. Not only that, but our three geese seem to find fulfillment in life by acting as the chicken yard sex police. Every time a hen gets mounted, the geese come charging, necks outstretched and squawking like a flock of Canadians (geese, that is) heading south for the winter.

All of this generally takes place under the bemused eyes of several crows. Do you remember when our economy was run by "trickle down" policy, whereby if you feed the horses enough grain, the sparrows at their feet will eventually get fed? These days it seems that the barnyard operates under "trickle up" economics, whereby if you feed the hens, geese, goats, sheep and camel enough grain and table scraps, the crows up above have some fine dining.

I see that crows in certain parts of the state (not unlike several of their human counterparts at the top of the economy) are dropping like flies. I walked into work this week, and one of the researchers said, "Follow me." He led me through several code-locked security doors, and finally into a cold room. There, stacked on carts and in fume hoods were stacks of dead crows wrapped in plastic grocery bags (as in that seemingly universal modern phrase heard all across America these days, "Paper or plastic?" Whichever I feel like choosing that day, when the cashier gives me the total, I respond by asking her "Do you want paper or plastic?"... the other seemingly universal meaning of the phrase.)

Anyway, my research friend is being sent dead crows from all over the state to be tested for West Nile Virus. He said that there are confirmed cases in the state now. Not quite as bad as Louisiana yet, but.... as the little girl in Poltergeist said, "They're here..."

I guess that I should not mind the crows in our chicken yard serving as sentinels for the virus. When they start dropping over dead, I had better keep all of the critters inside the barn at night to protect them from the mosquitoes. Come to think of it, I guess that I should also make sure that the stickers on the mosquitoes that I slap on me are all pointing away so that I don't get injected. Anyway, will I ever again scorn the crows?.... Nevermore. Nevermore.

Finally, speaking of tales of horror, another colleague pointed out an article to me that confirmed a "tall tale" that I had told her previously about ther origins of the Werewolf myth. It seems that in Central Europe years ago, a number of persons had a disease called porphyria. In this syndrome, compounds called porphyrins are deposited in the skin and teeth. These compounds cause photosensitivity, so the victims avoid the daylight. People with porphyria also usually suffer from hypertrichosis (an abnormal hair growth that can occur in patches or all over the body). Porphyrins are also fluorescent, so that they emit red light whedn stimulated by ultraviolet light.

Anyway there was a point in history when you could roam the night streets in Central Europe when the moon was full and reflecting lots of ultraviolet light. On your stroll it was not uncommon to pass people with excessive facial hair strolling in the moonlight. If they smiled at you, their teeth would glow blood red... hence the story of the Werewolf. Don't believe me? The best example I have ever seen is in an article entitled "Childhood Porphyrias" in the most recent issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2002;77:825-836.

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