A Few Dos and Don’ts
Pr. Harju’s recent misadventure with a bat prompts me to share with as many people as possible some tips concerning bats, people, and rabies.
The incidence of rabies in bats is approximately 1 in every 200 (half of one percent). In the United States, only about one person a year dies from bat rabies. Nevertheless, although the risk to humans is low, the stakes are very high, making even that degree of risk unacceptable.
In general, the best advice, if you should come upon a bat, is to leave it alone. If it is sick, even most wildlife rehabilitators will not accept it. Furthermore, bats are protected by state laws and it is illegal to interfere with them.
One exception to the “leave it alone” rule is if you find an orphaned baby bat. I raise those fairly often. The trouble with this exception is that in the U.S., many bats are so small that people assume they are babies when they are not. So unless you find it next to a dead mother, or have seen it nursing, or it doesn’t yet have hair or its eyes are still sealed shut, or you have some other very obvious indication that the animal is a baby, please leave it alone.
If you find a baby bat and wish to rescue it, you must capture it without touching it, or letting it touch you. That should be easy, as baby bats haven’t yet learned to fly. You must wear gloves. They don’t have to be all that thick, just thicker than the length of the baby’s teeth (if any). Some gardening gloves will do nicely. The rabies virus is carried in the sick animal’s saliva, so your gloves must be sufficient to prevent the baby not only biting, but also licking your hands. The best way to capture the baby bat is simply to lay a box over it. Then gently slide a piece of cardboard under the box. Alternatively, you can toss a light rag over the baby and pick it up inside the rag, with gloved hands.
Put the baby in a shoebox or other small box. Tape the lid shut all the way around, making sure there is no crack. Baby bats can squeeze out of almost any miniscule opening! The bat will not suffocate; anyway, you aren’t going to keep it that long. Keep the baby warm, dark, and quiet. Warmth can be achieved in a couple of ways. You can use a heating pad under half the baby’s box, set on low. That way the baby can move to whichever half of the box it prefers. Or you can take an old sock, fill it about a third full of dry rice, tie the end, and microwave it for 30 seconds or so. Wrap it in enough rags so the result is a gentle heat, such as a mother bat might provide, not enough to burn the baby. Place it under the box or against one side of the box. You'll need to re-nuke the heat sock approximately every half hour or 45 minutes.
Keep your pets and your children (and everybody else) strictly away from the bat! Besides taping the container shut, you should close the door of the room where you put the box, for double insurance. Don’t succumb to the temptation to show the bat to your friends.
Then call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Look online for ones in your state, or ask your vet for a referral, or call your state’s equivalent of our Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Or see this map of the United States, where you can click on your state to find rehabbers nearest you. A rehabber licensed to handle bats will be vaccinated against rabies, same as your dog is.
Do not attempt to feed the bat. Not even water. You don’t want to get that close to his mouth. You also don’t want to run the risk of actually harming him, by feeding him the wrong thing (he requires a very special formula) or by accidentally choking him. If the animal happens to be dehydrated (a good bet), his system won’t be able to handle any food anyway until he is rehydrated by someone who knows how. He is not going to die of hunger between the time you find him and the time you get him to a licensed rehabilitator. Resist the temptation to feed! (This goes for any wild animal you may find.)
Another exception to the rule about leaving bats alone is if you find one in your house. If you find a bat in your house, you must capture it. Follow the instructions in this video. It also shows you the most likely ways the bat got inside in the first place. (The woman in the video, Barbara French, is one of the foremost bat experts in the whole world.) The only thing amiss with the video is that Barbara, although she cautions you to wear gloves, isn’t wearing any herself!
Provided there is absolutely no chance the bat has bitten or licked anyone, take it outdoors and release it. With gloves on, place the bat on a tree trunk, as high up as you can reach. Watch to make sure it flies away. If it doesn’t, try to retrieve it; then call a rehabber.
If you should find a bat in the same room where you have been sleeping, or anyone else has been sleeping, you must take the bat the same day (or the next day, if you find the bat at night) to your county health department. This is because while you are asleep, you may not be aware of having been bitten. (Even while awake, you may not always be aware of it, as bat bites are so tiny; their teeth are so small.) Visual examination can’t be trusted, either, since the bite can be so tiny as to be all but invisible. Moreover, all it takes to expose you to rabies is being licked by the bat. (The rabies virus is carried in the saliva.) Anyone who has been sleeping in the same room with a bat is automatically considered to have been exposed to rabies, unless tests on the bat prove otherwise.
The Health Department will euthanize the bat and examine its brain for rabies. Chances are no rabies will be found, but bear in mind that the incidence of rabies among bats that get lost and wind up in your house is probably higher than it is in the general bat population.
If rabies is discovered, you will need prompt treatment. Or if the bat was not captured and cannot be tested, you will likewise need prompt treatment, as rabies has to be assumed.
Don’t believe the stories about excruciatingly painful shots in the stomach. Today’s treatment is a series of shots in the arm and is no more painful than any other injection, less than some.
Don’t be reluctant to take the bat to the health department because of the fact that it will be killed. Your life is so much more important than his.
Next, you will need to have your house thoroughly inspected to see whether a bat colony is roosting there. If so, you must get the bats out of your house. You may be a weirdo like me who thinks having bats in the house is an honor or is romantic or enchanting or something. Right, but having them is also too hazardous and also quite smelly after a while, so be ruthless. (Your church steeple/belfry is a much better place for them.) The video I’ve linked to above shows you how to exclude bats from your house in a humane way, but you also need to read details here.
Bats are wonderful creatures, soft, furry, warm mammals. They are very charming when you get to know them, partially on account of their extraordinary intelligence and delightful personalities. (In fact, there is some question nowadays whether some bats are actually primates, like us!) It is not true that a bat may become entangled in your hair; its sonar prevents it from making such a mistake. And bats do not suck your blood. Even vampire bats, whose range is Central and South America, only suck the blood of cows and goats and such. Bats are not vicious or aggressive, but very shy. They eat hundreds of insects apiece every hour all night long, so are important for insect control. But you just have to be careful around them, as with the other rabies vector species (which in the U.S. are foxes, groundhogs, skunks, and raccoons).
Armed with this information, I hope you can avoid not only tragedy, but even the unpleasant scare, inconvenience, and expense (maybe) and that befell the Harju family. They must now undergo a series of six shots each to protect them from rabies. Okay, so a shot is just a shot and not a tragedy; six of them still make something of an ordeal. Please keep Pr. Benjamin, Emily, Evelyn and Dominic in your prayers.
Friday, August 22, 2008
A Few Dos and Don’ts