If there is a Top Ten list of the most revolting creatures in North America, ticks must be on it. Before we get too far, here are some facts.
•Thirty different species of ticks can be found in Colorado.
•Ticks can’t fly, and they don’t drop out of trees.
•Ticks suck blood (mostly mammals and birds).
•Birds and mammals move ticks around.
•Only one species of tick (deer tick) carries Lyme disease.
•17 cases of Lyme disease were reported in Colorado from 1990-2017.
I’ve picked up a number of ticks over the years. One of my memorable encounters was one late July afternoon. I hiked out one of the Black Canyon trails to check on something quickly. I was out for maybe a half hour, but by the time I got back to the old visitor center, a tick was embedded in my chest.
Anger flowed through my veins. This pesky parasite, proboscis stuck below my skin, all eight legs wiggling away (seemingly with glee) had breached my tolerance.
The tick growth cycle requires a couple blood meals. As adults they cling to grass or brush usually at the edge of woodlands and along game or livestock trails. Two or three legs clutch to blades of grass, while the remaining five or six legs stretch out for a passing host. They go wild when detecting heat and carbon dioxide through tiny sensory organs.
A tick might be on a host (perhaps you) for many hours before deciding to bore into your skin, and people often find them before that happens. The outer “mouth” parts appear to be jagged-ended rods that insert into the skin. They extend and relax as the two sides probe below the surface.
Between them is a serrated, rigid hypostome that drives, sword-like into the skin as the outer parts insert deeper below the exterior. Similar to shark’s teeth that are pointed backward to keep food from getting away, the tongue-like hypostome is pointed for easy entry, but harder to remove.
Back at the old visitor center, seething with resentment, I pull out my pocket knife with tweezers at the ready. Tick removal tips are plentiful (especially online). Some are useful; some not.
Applying nail polish or Vaseline, for instance, to suffocate them to submission is unwise. Their breathing rate drops dramatically when feeding. Some also suggest applying a lit cigarette or just-doused match stick to the tick’s backside. Imagine having a two-foot diameter branding iron applied to your butt. You would probably throw up. If a tick does that, it could rapidly shoot various infections and illness into your body. And it’s still stuck.
Forceps or tweezers are the best tool. I sterilize them. If someone else was around, and willing to help, I would have them remove the beast. But I’m on my own. Getting a good grip, pushing down on the skin, I try to pinch as much of the mouth as I can. I firmly and slowly draw the tick out.
It’s a Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni); a carrier of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever (nearly as bad), tularemia, but not Lyme disease. Still, the intent of this tick is to make me a once-in-a-lifetime meal. I pull out the blade of my knife and pin the squirming tick to the top of the old oak desk.
Something stays my hand. Ticks are part of our natural world. Some biologists even admire them; though I can’t think of any right now. They spread diseases which are painful to us, but also keep some animal populations down.
They can survive for long periods without a meal (go figure). And they have adapted an ability to dry out and still endure. But if we eradicated all the ticks in the world, would anyone miss them? If we started with ticks, would we know when to stop? If we go down the road of tossing animals off of Noah’s Ark, would we reach a point of regret?
I have my own Top Ten list of detestable creatures, but I worry about setting myself up as prosecutor, judge, and jury. Knowing that this tick has a place in the world troubles my mind as I intend to extract my retribution there on the office desk. Should I stab it to pieces? Should I take it outside? What would you do?
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.