SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
August 15, 1977
Fleas have been putting the bite on man and beast for millennia, and even in this modern age of sophisticated pesticides, not much can be done about it
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August 15, 1977

I've Got You Under My Skin

Fleas have been putting the bite on man and beast for millennia, and even in this modern age of sophisticated pesticides, not much can be done about it

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Manufacturers also point out that they are now marketing new-style collars that are not only safer but also more effective than the old ones. Some of these are impregnated with tiny pesticide crystals. As animals move about, these minute particles are distributed and cling to their coats and do a bang-up job of scragging fleas. The makers claim that within two or three hours after the collars have been affixed, the crystals will be in working position and will continue to do in fleas for up to three months.

One major testing center for the timed-release crystals and other kinds of flea collars is the veterinary school at the University of Georgia, whose Dr. Frank Hayes headed a program that developed the collar now used by Sergeant's. According to Norman Arey of the Atlanta Constitution, the researchers start big by putting the proposed chemicals into jars containing fruit flies, the obvious advantage being that "it's hard to tell when a flea is dead, but you can see fruit flies keel right over."

The tests then move ahead to freshly dipped, flea-free dogs. Fifty fleas are sprinkled onto each dog from test tubes and the collars are attached. Underneath each dog cage is a slide-out tray covered with white paper; the testers pull out the trays periodically and count the dead fleas. Then the real fun starts, says Arey. The testers move to the little island town of Oxbow on the Mississippi Delta, where high temperatures, humidity and sandy soil have served to create one of the world's better flea-breeding areas. Dr. Ulrich Kalkofen, Hayes' associate, and his Georgia students select about 60 Walker hounds owned by local deer-hunting clubs and count the fleas on each one (you do this by combing the dog's hair forward and counting fast). Then test collars are put on. The hounds are prone to tunnel into the ground under their shelters to escape the heat; fleas are so thick there that they can be heard jumping about on the dry leaves. The dogs are coaxed out occasionally and Dr. Kalkofen makes new flea counts.

Every now and then it occurs to some scratchy, irritated pet owner that the collars might be effective for people. Unanimously, authorities from collar makers to environmental health specialists consider this a bad idea. The feeling is that a lot more research needs to be done before anklets or bracelets or necklaces can be recommended as either useful or healthful for relatively hairless beasts such as ourselves.

My own impression, reinforced by the experiences of friends who have pets with fleas, is that, while the collars are probably good, they'll never be as good as the fleas. For example, our golden retriever bitch goes through several flea collars a season. The initial impression is that they have some effect. She never seems to be any dizzier or more uncoordinated than usual but, on the other hand, she seldom seems to be without fleas for very long. These private findings are probably suspect, however, because during the flea season we also dope the food for our various dogs with a few drops of vinegar. In this section of the Appalachians, that practice is regarded as a flea deterrent. Whether or not it truly is remains debatable, but when it comes to fleas, there is strong motivation to shoot the works.

From the time of the ivory flea stick to the poisoned flea collar, our relationship with fleas has been an adversary one. However, we never seem to have grown to hate them as we do snakes or spiders. In fact, at various times, in various places, we have found fleas to be entertaining and companionable if not exactly lovable. Clever seamstresses have amused themselves and amazed their friends by creating costumes for flea corpses, fitting out the little fellows in elaborate dresses, capes and hats. This improbable handicraft flourished especially in Mexico, where an occasional dolled-up flea corpse can still be found. Until a few decades ago flea circuses were popular attractions at carnivals, fairs and penny arcades. The basic act involved a group of fleas harnessed to and pulling a miniature carriage, fleas waltzing together and fleas fighting duels with tiny swords. The act was emceed by a "perfesser," whose spiel about how he had searched the world over for these particular insects and how he had trained them was generally worth the price of admission. Such acts would conclude with the promoter-perfesser scooping up the performers and as a reward for their good behavior giving them a good long drink from his bare arm.

While flea circuses made a fine show, they were not particularly difficult to stage. To get a flea to pull a cart, about all that is required is a hand steady enough to loop a thin thread over the flea and then tie it to the vehicle. So harnessed, the flea is unable to use his hind legs for jumping. When the box or table on which the circus is staged is jiggled, the flea is alarmed and tries to jump, but being restrained can only plow ahead horizontally, dragging behind whatever is tied to him. Dancing or dueling flea acts involve a pair of fleas and enough cement to stick them and their props inconspicuously together and to weight down the insects so that they cannot jump off the stage.

In totaling up the contributions of the flea to human culture, it should be noted that these insects so intimately associated with us have a great appeal for poets, philosophers and essayists, when these thinkers are in metaphoric moods. Shakespeare, John Donne and Swift, among many others, had a lot to say about fleas, especially when they were dealing with the theme that all is vanity and men are not so highfalutin as they pretend—that they are, in fact, only a quick lunch for insects. When, in a proper mood, you stop to think about it, fleas may be the most interesting, talented and historic creatures with which to share a house, a rug, or for that matter a retriever. Certainly, through the centuries they have given abundant proof that they like us for ourselves.

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