Clippings: The tick conundrum looms large

As my family and I navigate the hazards of being outdoors this spring, I must echo my older daughter’s question: What possible good purpose do ticks serve? Oh, they kill off weak members of wildlife populations, a kind of natural culling, but after detaching six of the little parasites from my arms, back and neck in the past two weeks, I’m not generating any love, much less understanding, for the little beasts.
As a work colleague said, “Ticks ruin everything.”
It’s a battle against fear every time we go outside — will I get a tick? Will I get Lyme disease? They could be anywhere — in the leaves we’re raking up, in the grass that’s just beginning to grow, just laying in wait on tree branches or budding garden plants. And for people like us, who have big, very furry dogs, the hazard grows. The dogs have their three-month pill treatment, which causes any flea or tick that bites to expire. If they don’t bite, however, they lurk in the fur and jump ship at any opportunity. This is heartbreaking to people like me, who take so much pleasure in hugging their pets.
An added frustration for those of us who have had enough of the long Vermont winter is that it’s finally spring, and time to frolic outside, walk in the green grass, smell the flowers, plant the garden and clean up after winter, and all this has to be done with the niggling anxiety that those little blood suckers are just waiting to pounce. Speaking from experience, it feels similar to the niggling anxiety that comes with cancer: The treatment was successful, but there’s always that little voice that asks, “What if?”
What really nails it for me is that a tick bite has the potential to be so much more than an achy or itchy red mark to be tolerated for a few days. It’s the tick-borne illnesses that take the cake. I’ve seen the havoc Lyme can wreak on friends and colleagues.
So I ask again, what possible valid purpose do these critters serve in our ecosystem? Believe it or not, there are people who don’t necessarily champion the tick, but at least can find a few reasons they deserve a bit more respect than they get. For one thing, they have reportedly been around since the Cretaceous Period, terrorizing fauna for millions of years, so kudos to them for such longevity. I’ve also seen the argument that while they transmit horrible diseases, they also maintain and transport all sorts of life on the microscopic level — viruses, bacteria, protozoa and other tiny things — and this is a good thing if you look at the Grand Ecological Food Chain Scheme. They do serve as food for other wildlife. Reptiles, birds and amphibians consume lots of ticks. Apparently guinea hens and opossums are champion tick consumers. So there’s an argument for getting some guinea hens and encouraging ’possums to visit your yard.
A friend and I were chatting and we both agreed that since there is an oral treatment for dogs that prevents tick bites for three months, there should be the same thing for people. Seems pretty simple. From what I can gather, the chemicals found in dogs’ tick treatments can cause severe damage to the nervous system and kidneys. While a dog’s lifespan is relatively short and thus there isn’t enough time for lots of toxins to accumulate before their natural deaths, (so say some), such is not the case for humans. Over the human lifespan the accumulation could, and some say would, cause a great deal of damage. GlaxoSmithKline did come up with a Lyme vaccine they called LYMErix in the early 2000s, but if a patient took the vaccine after contracting Lyme and had a specific genotype, it caused severe autoimmune dysfunction like rheumatoid arthritis. They were sued by a lot of people and pulled the vaccine off the market in 2002. No much has been done about it since.
I have heard that there is a pill out there somewhere, but the pharmaceutical company that makes it won’t put it on the market because they wouldn’t be able to turn a profit — despicable, if not surprising given what we know of pharmaceutical companies. If there isn’t, I think there are enough people out there suffering from Lyme or worried about contracting it (or anaplasmosis, another tick-borne disease) who would be very excited to have a pill as preventative treatment.
In the meantime, you can go to the hardware store or Agway or anywhere that sells repellent and buy your DEET-loaded Ben’s or Off. The companies who market these things now also sell a permethrin clothing treatment you can spray on yourself, and there are businesses online that will treat your clothes with permethrins for a fee. It’s a case of cover yourself with nasty toxic chemicals so that you don’t get a nasty tick-borne disease. For people who just can’t stomach this idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the CDC lists garlic oil as a good repellent, as well as a combination of rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, thyme and geraniol essential oils. These kinds of repellents can often be found alongside the DEET-filled ones, or you can make them yourself.
As for me, given that I had the telltale bull’s eye last year, for which I was subjected to four weeks of gut-irritating antibiotics, and given that I live in the woods, and that I have a very big, very fluffy dog, and that I like to garden, and that ticks seem to really like me, I’m going to go with the nasty chemicals. They sit on the bench by the front door, where, if we’re smart, everyone will use them as they leave for outdoor adventures and work.
Thanks to climate change, Vermont and other states in the Northeast are becoming warmer and more humid, creating a better environment for both tick growth and the spread of Lyme and other diseases. If we were hoping for a drop in tick numbers around here, it doesn’t look highly likely. It’s a reality none of us like to think about.
Nevertheless, we persist. We love to garden, we love to spend time outdoors, we love our pets. We choose to live in Vermont in part because of its natural beauty and rural lifestyle. Ticks are now part of that equation. I loathe them, I fear them, but dammit, they are not going to stop me from enjoying the outside.

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