Autumn Peeked at Me Today

          For a brief half-minute he walked about 200 meters ahead.  When he turned, looked over his shoulder (saw me) and casually marched into the forest, I could see his very bushy brownish-gray tail.  I immediately knew it wasn't a domestic dog.  I thought it wasn't low enough to the ground or as small as (I believed) a gray fox should be (but that outdated glossy magazine and zoo-based belief was in need of an internet refresher—now, I'm not so sure).  It definitely wasn't tall or gangly or large or light-gray enough to be a wolf.  My best guess: male coyote.

          When I got to the spot I thought he entered the woods...I paused.  He was observing me from behind a fallen log.  For one long, slow, breath, we stared at each other.  Then, he turned, and I watched the tops of twigs shiver and the leaves of underbrush vibrate marking his path as he moved away into his forest.

          A male coyote with toxoplasmosis.   

          Toxoplasmosis is an infection in mammals caused by a protozoa.  (As you recall from Biology 101, protozoa are extremely tiny organisms which are easy to see under a microscope and are more fun to identify than other things found in a drop of pond water because most of them are motile.)  Almost every mammal on earth can be infected by it.  You might be infected right now—might have been infected your entire life—there are very few symptoms after the initial infection which is normally misidentified as the flu.

          The toxoplasmosis protozoan thrives on the inside of felines and insures its life-cycle continues in a very unique way [more on that soon].  (It's safe to assume the protozoan is/was incapable of differentiating between the guts of saber-tooth tigers and those of your housecat.)

          The protozoan infects the tissue of its feline host as well as passes cysts (eggs) into the feline's feces.  Those cysts are passed to new hosts both when the feline is eaten as well as when a cyst is transferred from the feline's feces to the paw of another mammal who later ingests the cyst when grooming (or when your pet uses the litter box and happens to get a cyst on his paw, which transfers to the carpet where your baby crawls's first "cold").

          Very unique way:  when mice get toxoplasmosis, they tend to exhibit behavior which can best be described as "risky".  They are less scared of open spaces than their uninfected brethren; and, strangely, they don't avoid the odor of cat urine (as do all uninfected mice) but, instead, they are either incapable of noticing the odor or are attracted to it.

          It's safe to assume the protozoan can't differentiate which warm blooded animal has consumed it, therefore, the obvious question:  Is the behavior of all animals, including humans, affected just like that of the mice?

          Within the last few decades a small number of studies have been done on how toxoplasmosis affects humans.  The indication is that toxoplasmosis acts in concert with hormones in humans to exaggerate behaviors.  Infected men tend to be risk takers; they exhibit jealousy more often than uninfected men, and are more willing to disobey laws (one study showed infected men were 2.5 times more likely to have automobile accidents than uninfected men).  Infected women tend to be more compassionate, warm, and more conscientious than uninfected women.

          I couldn't find a study to determine if the kind little old lady who always has something nice to say and who keeps 23 cats in her house on the corner, can't smell them or is actually attracted to the smell...but there's little doubt about the fact that she's infected with toxoplasmosis.

          Just like the male risk-taking coyote who paused to get a closer look at the noisy man on the first day of autumn.

          Post Script - - - I've cared for and been friends with the full gamut of cats my entire life (indoor only, outdoor only, and indoor-outdoor).  It seems improbable to me—with all the cat puke I've cleaned, scratches I received, and scat I've dumped with bare hands since the invention of clumping cat litter—that one cyst hasn't found its way inside of me.  However.  I'm a pretty strict law abider; I never understood what getting jealous accomplished; and I've very rarely intentionally risked harming myself (Avoid Pain At All Costs - a good subtitle for my life story).
           Clearly, I don't have any of the male behavioral symptoms of toxoplasmosis.  On the other hand, although I don't think the term "warm" has ever been used in reference to me (a term which I think applies to extraverts not introverts) I would agree I'm more compassionate and conscientious than the average bear.  Which means (operating upon the assumption of being infected) that I have less testosterone and more estrogen inside me for the protozoa to amplify.
          But, I hate the smell of cat piss and can detect the tiniest whiff from several meters maybe I'm just one of those guys who's immune to the brain control of the catbug aliens.

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