Squirrels aren't nuts — they love California. With a welcoming climate, canyons and hills that offer a multitude of opportunities for shelter and a wealth of food resources, it's an ideal place to call home. In my yard, squirrels feast on the plentiful acorns that California oak trees
produce. Like many other urban areas, the bushy-tailed rodents are a common sight in our city.
Given that we live in such close proximity with squirrels, I was slightly taken aback when I came across an article in the L.A. Times
reporting that public health workers discovered a California ground squirrel
in the Angeles National Forest that's carrying the plague. Yes, that
plague. The same plague (Yersenia pestis
) that wiped out massive swaths of humanity throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Though current medical resources make plague less life-threatening than it has been historically, containment is essential for prevention, and treatment if infection occurs is critical.
The squirrels in Hollywood
and surrounding areas are of a different type than the infected squirrel, but they're still at risk. Plague is transmitted via flea bite, which makes it all the more important for animal owners to keep their pets flea-free — which isn't easy in the summer, since hot days are linked to high flea proliferation. The ground squirrel population may have originally contracted plague from wood rats, a rodent population that has a long infection "rap sheet," and has been the genesis for many epizootic migrations of the disease.
Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being the most recent city in the U.S. to experience an urban plague epidemic. Since that outbreak in 1924 and 1925, plague infections across California and across the country have tended to be scattered and sporadic. "Occurrence of plague in wild rodents, including ground squirrels, is much higher in the upland areas of adjoining Los Angeles and Riverside counties," says the Orange County Vector Control District
in Garden Grove.
Measures taken to control
plague and prevent its spread to humans included, in the 1960s, spraying campgrounds with the pesticide DDT
. At the Vertebrate Pest Conference in 1967, Keith F. Murray from the Bureau of Vector Control presented an assessment of plague in California and directed that DDT be applied to "campgrounds or comparable areas of concentrated human activity." Shortly thereafter, the EPA
determined that DDT was potentially harmful to humans and disastrous for numerous other species, including brown pelicans
and bald eagles
. Currently, U.S. Forest Service
and L.A. County Health Department workers are also dusting squirrel burrows with EPA-approved pesticide in the area where the unfortunate Spermophilus beecheyi
was captured weeks ago.
The camping facility that closed, Los Alamos Campground
, is in one of California's gorgeous wilderness areas, the Angeles National Forest
. Situated between two lakes, Gorman and Pyramid, it's a popular summertime destination for nature lovers. With plague detected in the Angeles Forest's rodent community already this summer, outdoor enthusiasts in the area should be especially cautious when communing with our furry friends.