Tick Tidbits

TO WIT

September 29, 1991|By DAVE BARRY

Today's topic is the U.S. National Tick Collection.

But first, I must make yet another correction on the meaning of the French expression "savoir faire." As you may recall, I wrote a column stating that "savoir faire" means "ear size." A reader wrote back stating that I was a bonehead. So I wrote a column apologizing for my mistake and stating that the correct definition of "savoir faire" is, in fact, "nose hair."

I thought this had settled the matter, but recently I got a letter from another irate reader, Liliane Adams of North Haven, Conn. Her letter begins: "Are you a complete idiot?"

Having thus softened the blow, she points out that (a) I am still wrong about "savoir faire," and (b) she knows this because she, personally, is French.

Well, of course now I feel like a major horse's patooty (or, as the French say, "une bigge butte du cheval"). So this time, in preparing my correction, I had my staff of highly trained research assistants go over it thoroughly, both visually and by barking at it. Thus I am 100 percent confident when I state that "savoir faire" does not mean "ear size" or "nose hair." It means "armpit fumes," as in: "Due to unusually high levels of 'savoir faire,' the surgeon general is advising against travel to France."

I'm glad we got that straightened out. I sincerely hope that my carelessness has not offended anyone else of the snail-eating persuasion.

Speaking of repulsive creatures, today's topic, as I said, is the National Tick Collection. If you think I'm making this up, check the June 1991 issue of National Geographic. There you'll find a fascinating news item brought to my attention by alert readers Scott and Irene Dean. It begins:

"The U.S. government has solved the problem of who should pay for upkeep on a million dead ticks by sending them to Georgia. The National Institutes of Health has shipped the National Tick Collection to Georgia Southern University in Statesboro with a five-year, million-dollar grant to maintain it."

I'll pause here while you taxpayers wipe up the coffee you just spat all over yourselves when you went: "What? We're paying a million dollars to maintain dead ticks??"

Calm down. I checked into this, and it turns out that the National Tick Collection is OK. For one thing, it's the largest in the entire world. Japan may have overtaken us in technology, but we're still No. 1 in deceased bloodsucking arthropods. The National Tick Collection also has important scientific purposes. I spoke to the curator, James Keirans. National Geographic has a picture of Dr. Keirans holding a jar containing the largest known breed of tick. It looks like a small turtle. If this tick were to get hold of one of those yappy lap-style dogs about the size of a Hostess Twinkie, you'd hear a quick "slurp," and all that would remain of the dog would be lint.

Dr. Keirans said the National Tick Collection is basically a whole lot of dead ticks inside jars; the whole thing "fits into an area about the size of a good-sized living room."

Dr. Keirans said scientists need to study ticks because they (ticks) spread all kinds of diseases. He said scientists actually go out looking for ticks. It's called "flagging," wherein the scientist attaches a piece of white flannel to a broom handle, then drags it over the grass, where the ticks grab on to it.

"I've been in situations where I've picked up the flag, and it was black with ticks," Dr. Keirans said. "Then I looked down, and my pants were covered with ticks, crawling up my legs."

(This scene could be the basis of a major horror film, called "Tick," featuring Madonna as the Evil Tick Queen.)

If a tick gets on you, the way to remove it is not to burn it or put chemicals on it. Dr. Keirans recommends you grasp the tick near its head, ideally using tweezers, slowly pull it out, and mail it to the Publishers Clearing House. No! I made up that last part. But the rest is true -- an example of the useful information we get from being the World Leader in tick research.

So I figure the National Tick Collection is a good investment of my tax dollars, especially when you compare it with other parasitic federal entities:

Amount of money spent sending out "newsletters":

Congress: Millions of dollars.

Dead ticks: None.

Maybe it would be cost-effective to replace high federal officials with dead ticks. Do you think that would work? Nah. Dead ticks are lacking a quality that comes naturally to your top federal leadership. Call it "savoir faire."

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