Bat Rabies Scare Tactics

(This column first appeared in the May 22, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    For some time I have wanted to write a column to encourage readers to appreciate bats and to set out bat houses to attract these most beneficial creatures. I have hesitated to do so, however, because I haven't wanted to do them indirect harm. It seems that every time bats appear in the news, someone responds with scary information about rabies and the community reaction is, "Let's get rid of them."

    But a local incident with a rabid bat found inside a home leads me to speak out for these remarkable flying mammals now in hope that I will counter a quite natural response.

    First, however, let me be very clear. Rabies (formerly hydrophobia) is a terrible affliction, and anyone bitten by an animal -- wild or tame -- should contact a doctor immediately to seek advice about treatment and seek to retain the animal for testing. Over a period of a few days treatment can be initiated and the series of shots is no longer as painful or threatening as it once was. I speak from family experience here: my wife had to take the shots because of her confrontation with a possibly rabid raccoon. Kathy Previty, the Elma resident who found the rabid bat, is wisely having her family and pets protected.

    Now let me place bats and rabies in a better context. The British medical journal, "The Lancet", reported less than two cases of human rabies (of all types) per year in the United States between 1980 and 1996. "To put such a rate in perspective," says Merlin Tuttle, Executive Director of Bat Conservation International, "bicycle accidents killed 800, bee stings 95, and dog attacks 20, in the most recent year of reporting for the United States alone."1

Our regional rabies concern is largely with raccoons and skunks. In one recent year one of seven raccoons tested was rabid; for bats the corresponding figure was about one in 200.

    Unfortunately, New York has overreacted to a rabies death near Albany several years ago, the only one in the state's history. I fully support their underwriting rabies treatment costs, but I am concerned about their million dollar "Bat Rabies Alert" campaign that has included both state-wide advertising and forcing children's facilities to spend large sums for "bat-proofing." In what was hopefully the worst case, Camp Dudley on Lake Champlain had to spend almost $28,000 and the state at least twice that amount because, according to the camp director, "a bat was seen flying. Despite no evidence of contact with the bat, no evidence that the bat was rabid, and no known case of a human becoming rabid from a bat flying near him 52 of the boys received...shots."

    The obvious winners in this situation are pest controllers. One advertised for extra help: "Bat Control -- Want to Make the BIG BUCKS??! The Most Lucrative Part of Nuisance Wildlife Trapping -- Deal with the 'most feared creature in the North American Continent....'" I know of no local controller who would join in that kind of nonsense, but clearly state health authorities have been co-opted.

    This is a sad situation because bats are, I believe, our most beneficial wild animals. According to one source, they are "the primary controllers of night-flying insects, including a wide variety of crop pests."2 In some parts of the country the total nightly insect intake of individual colonies is over 100 tons.

    We should be so lucky. Here bats are not at all common and we should support them in any way we can. The next time you consider buying or building bird houses, consider a bat house as well.-- Gerry Rising

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in bats explore the Bat Conservation International website and join this important organization. Another website and another organization devoted to bats that you may wish to consider joinig is Sue Barnard's Bats of San Diego. Ms. Bernard includes links to many other bat-related sites.

1 "Rabies: Economics vs. Public Safety," Bats 17: 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 3-8.

2 John O. Whitaker, Jr. and William J. Hamilton, Jr., Mammals of the Eastern United States(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 74.