PULLMAN, Wash. - When Washington State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinary scientist Don Knowles got word two years ago that a rare but deadly infection was discovered among a group of horses in south Texas, he felt a jolt of adrenaline. Not only were the horses infected with a parasitic disease similar to malaria in humans, but the epicenter of the outbreak was at no ordinary ranch.
It was the King Ranch, legendary for its world-class quarter horses, including former winners of the Triple Crown and Kentucky Derby. The 825,000 acre family-owned estate that stretches across four counties is one of the largest and most famous ranches in the world.
"Anyone who knows anything about quarter horses knows about this ranch," said Knowles. "Universally, it's on the map for the best horses and cattle."
One King Ranch horse had tested positive for the disease when the federal government first alerted Knowles. A few days later, it was a dozen; then four dozen.
"The number just kept going up," recalled Knowles at his WSU office, where a large photograph of Appaloosa horses in a field punctuates one wall and a road bike leans against another.
Knowles, in his silver-rimmed spectacles, hiking shorts and athletic shoes, resembles someone more at home on a bike trail than a scientist at the beck and call of deadly, infectious animal diseases that pull him to regions near and far.
"This kind of outbreak had never been seen in this country before," he said. "People were asking 'What's going on down there?'"
And so, at the request of federal agriculture officials, Knowles boarded a plane and headed south to investigate. As leader of the USDA's Animal Disease Research Unit at WSU, he had a Texas-sized riddle to solve.
Equine piroplasmosis is so feared in the U.S. that the government bans horses that test positive from entering the country. Until the outbreak
|Contact: Don Knowles, WSU veterinary professor|
Washington State University