A rabies variant not usually seen in Tennessee apparently found its way there via Virginia, and a captive anteater is getting the blame. A CDC report published Friday cites the case of a particular southern tamandua, aka lesser anteater (even fancier name: Tamandua tetradactyla), that may have exposed more than a dozen people to the viral disease, in what Live Science notes is the first known case in this species. The anteater in question had been transferred from a drive-through Virginia zoo to a zoo in Tennessee's Washington County at the beginning of May last year, and by the end of June, the creature started acting lethargic and showing other worrisome signs, including diarrhea and loss of appetite.
Thinking the animal had an infection, vets prescribed antibiotics. But the anteater's condition worsened, and it was euthanized in July. A necropsy and further tests confirmed it had rabies, which surprised scientists for several reasons. First, the tamandua has an exceedingly low body temperature—91 degrees Fahrenheit—that isn't hospitable to the rabies virus. Plus, this anteater hadn't had any evident bites on it indicating another animal had transmitted it. The fact that no reports had ever come in on tamanduas having rabies put that theory even further out of experts' minds. Finally, the rabies variant found in the anteater was one seen in raccoons in the eastern US, including in Virginia, where the anteater had come from—but not in its new home state of Tennessee.
That last fact led scientists to speculate the anteater had been rabid before it left Virginia. While no one can say for sure that's what happened, the owner of the Virginia zoo confirmed "native wildlife" had been spotted inside the zoo's fencing. "This case demonstrates the possibility of rabies translocation by human movement of captive mammals," the CDC researchers warn. Thirteen people who'd come into contact with the anteater were treated with postexposure vaccines; as of the beginning of this month, no more rabies cases tied to this case, in humans or animals, were reported in either state. Stat News notes that rabies, typically fatal if left untreated, may be an "underestimated" threat, citing a CDC report from earlier this year that noted three people died from rabies in 2021 after being bitten by bats and not seeking rabies treatment. (Read more rabies stories.)