Monday, June 6, 2011

Wild, Wild Life

Rhode Island, unlike South Africa, doesn’t have a Big Five moving about beyond the confines of Roger Williams Park Zoo. There’s no Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, leopard or lion to watch out for…although some locals still swear that mountain lions roam in the wilds of Matunuck and Hopkinton. Any talk of a Little Five would have to start with the quahog and the Rhode Island Red, and perhaps include the endangered American burying beetle, a species that lives on Eastern Standard Time only on Block Island (and a Massachusetts island to which it has been introduced) and an insect that warrants its own headquarters in Rhody.

Unlike the South African quintet, the Rhode Island candidates don’t pose much of a hazard to the careless observer. You won’t find them hanging on the walls of private lodges or exaggerated in Big Game conversations at the neighborhood Elks or Lions. But there is one creature that deserves more respect than it gets in this state: the tick. By all accounts (and “by all” I mean generally a few friends and neighbors) this has been a terrible tick year already in Rhode Island (and by “terrible” I mean there’s a lot of ’em around). And given the damage they can wreak on human life, through debilitating afflictions including Lyme disease and other vector-borne illnesses, having a state full of ticks during beach-and-backyard grilling season is like the summer thundercloud that follows us wherever we go.

Fortunately, Rhode Island has Dr. Thomas Mather, University of Rhode Island entomologist and director of the TickEncounter Resource Center and URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, to tackle the tick problem. Mather raises tick awareness through solid science, detailed reporting, sobering statistics, helpful tips and a healthy dose of good humor to bring more people to the cause of preventing serious diseases like Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis.

The fifth annual Big Tick Gala will be held on Friday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center in Providence. The fund-raiser will include a silent auction, tick-bite prevention “marketplace,” speaking program, live comedy and a custom martini dubbed the “tick-tini.” The bug-inspired cocktail is the latest creative venture from Mather, who a few years back helped sell the state legislature on a “Scratch the Tick” instant lottery ticket to raise money for the cause. (Folks in Hollywood want to see their names in bright lights on a marquee or in stars in cement but it’s a bigger honor in Rhode Island to find your way onto a scratch lottery ticket.) Mather doesn’t have his own TV series yet, but maybe he should.

What animals would you look for on a Rhode Island safari?