Yellowstone Cougars Have A Bit Of A Plague Problem...
At this point in 2020, this news may not grab you as it would have just 6 months ago. Today, if someone tells you "almost half of the cougars tested in Yellowstone tested positive for Yersinia pestis", your initial thought maybe "Why are we talking about cougars when the civilized world seems to be crashing down around us?"
If that is indeed your reaction, I'm here to tell you.... you're right. Absolutely right. This study is looking like a small spark emitted from the bonfire that is the 2020 news cycle. I am very aware of that. In fact, someone today (and by someone, I mean a youtube video) reminded me that those horrible wildfires which devastated Australia and were going to be one of the defining climate change moments of the decade...was literally just 6 months ago. 6. Months. Ago. This has been one heck of a year. So yes, I admit there are bigger stories and things to address during your quarantine. However...
If you are like me, your first instinct was "Huh, I need to google Yersinia pestis". I don't know about you, but when I google a foreign term and it comes back with "Black Death" it quickly has my attention! So, with a definition in hand, I can summarize this study for us.
A 9-year study of Greater Yellowstone Area cougars showed that 8 out of 17 (47%) of the big cats tested were positive for Y. pestis antibodies. And they found actual traces of Y. pestis in 4 out of 11 (36%) cats that were tested postmortem. This study also overlapped a human infection case in the area as well.
Now, I know that over the course of 9 years, 17 cougars is a pretty small sample size, which the study also acknowledges. But almost 50%?!? I am very uncomfortable with any study that finds almost 50% of the subjects had been infected with the Black Death.
The study publishers also go on to say "Neither puma sex nor age was significantly associated with Y. pestis exposure or mortality, although our sample size was small. The overall prevalence of exposure we recorded was similar to that found along the western slope of Colorado, which is adjacent to the Four Corners region, a known plague hotspot in the USA".
HOLY CRAP! Again, I don't care how small the sample size is. There's a Bubonic Plague problem with Yellowstone big cats and we may have another, I repeat, ANOTHER hotspot in the USA! Time to have a mini panic attack and add another curse to the 2020 rant, right? Wrong. Life Rule #1: there is never a good time to panic. Life Rule #2: there is NEVER a good time to panic.
So if we're not going to panic, what should we take away from this study?
1) Caution: Hunters and people who handle big cats in this region need to be aware of the heightened risk of infection when handling these cats. If you're asking yourself "how many people outside of hunters are handling cougars?" I'll ask you, "have you seen Tiger King?" And "do you know anyone with two grand lying around?"
2) Vigilance: Scientists are aware of this issue and can monitor cougars in neighboring states to see how/if Y. pestis spreads. As the study concludes "pumas may be a useful sentinel for potential risk of plague exposure to humans throughout the West". The more we monitor, the better our chances of proactively addressing a bubonic plague situation, rather than reacting.
3) Humility: Roughly 670 years after the Black Death wiped out over half Europe, Y. pestis is still very much alive and can even be found in pockets here in the USA. I find that fascinating and it serves as a reminder for us during this current pandemic that we have always lived in a world threatened by disease. While the smartest men and women in medicine work to develop new treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, it is absolutely imperative that we all learn from this crisis so that we may be better prepared to help our families and communities through the next one.
If you would like to get additional information from the original study, here is the link.