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When your backyard attacks

With proper care and protection, the great outdoors doesn't have to be a scary place

A rmed with garden gloves and spritzes of bug spray, New Englanders on the suburban front sally forth to battle Mother Nature and her phobia-inducing arsenal -- stingers, fangs, and hairy legs.

"That an animal can do us harm, it's an innate fear that goes way back," said Robert Buchsbaum, a naturalist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Wenham. "People get really concerned."

Critter bites can range from itchy and annoying to debilitating or even fatal. But what lurks in the backyard that actually should be feared? The answer is -- the creatures that transmit diseases, though rare, such as rabies, West Nile, and Eastern equine encephalitis, which vie for the status as public enemy number one. No bug is more despised (except, perhaps, the mosquito) than the deer tick, which carries Lyme and other diseases.

"One of the most insidious things about ticks is that they love the same landscape we do," said Stephen Rich, a medical entomologist who heads the diagnostic lab for tick assessment at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "We like yards with nice shrubs that border woodlands and so do they. They're perfect tick and deer habitats."

According to Rich, 40 to 60 percent of ticks in the state are infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. "Ten, 15 years ago, tick populations in the suburbs were relatively low," Rich said. "But now, places like Wayland, Weston, Sudbury, and Framingham, these towns are just packed."

Nothing has changed in tick mobility over the years. They still move only a few feet in their lifetime, unless they hitch a ride on a bird or a deer. "We're getting closer to them," Rich said. "Landscaping has changed. We're closer to tick environments than we have ever been in the past."

If left untreated, Lyme infection can cause joint, heart, and nervous-system disorders. Early identification and treatment with oral antibiotics, however, can prevent long-term damage.

"A bull's-eye rash surrounding the site of the bite is the first sign of Lyme in 70 to 80 percent of cases," Rich said.

To avoid contracting Lyme disease, residents are urged by Rich to conduct daily full-body tick checks. "Ticks cannot transmit the disease if removed within 24 to 48 hours of attachment," he said.

Larger suburban wildlife, such as raccoon, skunk, and coyote, are also to be avoided because of the threat of rabies, according to Dr. Paul Biddinger, director of operations in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

When left untreated, rabies is fatal. "The good news is it's 100 percent treatable," Biddinger said. "There's only one or two cases of rabies per year in the US, but if you think you've been exposed, seek medical attention.

"The most common bite that I've seen are from squirrels, which don't carry rabies. People can't help but play with them because they're so cute."

The doctor's advice: "Love your own; leave it alone. Stay away from all wild animals."

Winged torments of the garden variety also can send people to the emergency room.

"I've admitted a case of mosquito-borne encephalitis," Biddinger said. "Though the risk is small, it appears to be growing."

Biddinger strongly urges people to take precautions at dawn and dusk: Wear insect repellent and long sleeves and pants, if possible.

Animals, however, hardly have the corner on the phobia market. An unassuming native called Toxicodendron radicans, more commonly referred to by its villainous name -- poison ivy -- single-handedly can send gardeners running for their lives.

"There's no substitute for learning how to recognize it," Buchsbaum said. "It can look like a shrub sometimes. It's not always viney." Chanting the old saying, he added: "Leaves of three, don't touch me."

Poison ivy exudes a chemical called urushiol that causes the infamously itchy rash. Urushiol will stick to anything -- garden tools, toys, pets -- and it can remain potent for years.

Petting a dog that ran through poison ivy can cause a reaction in people. If you have it in your yard, seek professional advice on how to get rid of it.

And don't think you're not susceptible because you've never had it. (You know the types: "I don't get poison ivy," they say smugly as they pick a bouquet of the stuff.) According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 85 percent of the population is allergic to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, and sometimes repeated exposure is necessary to develop the allergy.

But Marion Larson, a biologist and educator with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, hopes to quell the public's concerns about close encounters with the natural kind: "People should be enjoying the outdoors -- especially this time of year."

"Leave no child inside," Larson said. "I'm for that."

Ann Butler writes about nature for the Globe's regional editions.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Dangerous backyard animals