Insanitary, Voracious and Preying on Us!

August 11, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It's not a correct point of view, I suppose, but I must admit that I just don't like them. They have a way of making me uncomfortable. I think the world would be improved if they were eliminated.

They have a bad reputation, which they've earned, and it just isn't desirable to have them in your neighborhood. Fairly or not, people tend to associate them with a lack of hygiene. And there's no question they have an inordinate interest in sex.

I'm well aware that many of those who know them best have a high regard for them, and admire their talents. Their athletic ability is well-known, and they can make prodigious vertical jumps. Perhaps we really should accept them for what they are, and try harder to keep our instinctive hostilities toward them under control.

But I don't subscribe to that preachy peace-and-brotherhood nonsense. Where I live, we've taken all the abuse from them that we can endure. We're armed and angry and ready to kill. This year, the fleas have gone too far.

As usually happens, they came in on the dog and laid their eggs in the rug. Soon, the dog was dipped and moved outdoors for the summer, and when the eggs hatched the fleas couldn't find him. So they settled for what was available, which was us. We're now in the process of organizing a chemical counterstrike. Eat poison, you bloodsuckers!

Most of my practical knowledge of fleas has been acquired in the field, so to speak. I know that spray-on repellents which discourage mosquitoes will also discourage fleas, although only up to a point.

I know that fleas seem to prefer biting women to men. I could speculate why that might be, but if I did it would probably lead to trouble. I know that it's easier to kill fleas by drowning them -- we've been keeping a pot of water handy -- than by squeezing them between your fingers. After they drown they sink.

But when I want more esoteric information about fleas I turn to one of my favorite natural-history books, Roger Knutson's ''Furtive Fauna, A Field Guide to the Creatures Who Live on You.'' (This is also a handy reference work for those who might want to know more about bedbugs, ticks, lice, hair fungi and other down-home life forms. I particularly recommend the chapter on face mites, little eight-legged fellows who live rather quiet lives in the follicles of most people's facial hair.)

It was from Dr. Knutson, a professor of biology at Luther College in Iowa, that I learned that there are many different kinds of fleas.

These include dog fleas, cat fleas, rat fleas, rabbit fleas and human fleas. There are small anatomical differences between them, but they're most easily distinguished by what, or whom, they like to eat.

If deprived of their food of choice, most will try something else. For dog fleas, cat fleas and rat fleas, this often means people. True human fleas are rare in scrubbed-and-vacuumed middle-class America. They're said to prefer pigs or badgers if Homo sapiens isn't available, but will try a dog in a pinch.

A flea can jump more than 300 times its length. If a six-foot woman could do that, she could do a mile in three hops. There used to be flea circuses, in which fleas pulled little carts and did tricks, but no one appears to have taught fleas basketball. If they ever take it up the games should be dramatic.

Dr. Knutson notes admiringly that fleas ''bear what is generally acknowledged to be the most elaborate sexual apparatus known among the animals and they copulate for as long as four or five hours at a stretch.'' He doesn't say who times them. He does say, though, that modern flea researchers often put their subjects in little cages, strapped to their ankles, when it's meal time. Anyone wacky enough to do that would think nothing of timing a flea's coitus.

Fossils indicate that fleas have been around for 200 million years. The rat flea helped spread bubonic plague -- the Black Death, which killed one-fourth the population of Europe. The rabbit flea can't lay fertile eggs without a blood meal from a pregnant rabbit. This is a kind of genetic insurance that there will be food around for the next generation of fleas when they're old enough to need it.

A flea can remain in its cocoon for a long time, even a year or more, without food. But when it emerges it has to eat soon. This is why fleas prefer hosts who come home every night. Thus dogs, rabbits, chickens and suburbanites are often plagued by fleas, while monkeys, cows, and traveling salesmen usually aren't.

It's possible to get rid of fleas without using noxious substances. You can wear white socks, for example, which makes it easier to spot them and pick them off. You can leave your home empty and unheated for a couple of years. Or you can burn the place down.

As for us, we're going to spray. And already I can hear your shocked question hanging unfinished in the air. ''But isn't that . . . ?''

Indeed it is. It's insecticide.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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