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Tucson Weekly Going Batty

Where Flying Rodents Are Concerned, It's The Human Population That's Rabid

By Kevin Franklin

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  RABIES IS ON the loose, from Olympia, Washington, to Round Rock, Texas. The general populace is in a terror, and is fingering bats as the culprits.

Never mind that the pandemic is only in the headlines, with the number of rabies mortalities per year in the United States hovering around a whopping two. This "surge" of salivating death and madness must end, and the best way to do that, if you trust popular opinion, is to exterminate bats. Or at least run them out of town.

What people seem to be forgetting are the many benefits bats provide. A thousand Mexican free-tailed bats will eat 33 pounds of insects a night. That's a lot of insects. When you multiply this figure by a colony of 100,000 bats, you begin to appreciate the huge impact they have on our environment. That's just one colony of one species of bug eaters. There are many other species that function in a variety of roles, including the lesser long-nosed bats that pollinate saguaros.

The rabies scare is causing real damage to bat-public relations, and sometimes to the bats themselves, says Merlin Tuttle, executive director of Bat Conservation International.

At the annual North American Symposium on Bat Research, which convened earlier this month here in Tucson, Tuttle spoke about the outbreak of rabies in media headlines. One of the best quotes comes from the Texas Round Rock Leader:

"A bat is a lot more deadly than a rattlesnake...Those viewing the nightly show under the (Congress Street) bridge (in Austin) need especially heed this advice, as swiftly swooping bats sometimes also urinate--another danger...."

While the actual virus in humans is exceedingly rare, the outbreak of rabies in the media is very real; and the corresponding maligning of bats results in real harm. None of the hysteria is based on evidence, according to Tuttle.

"Let the facts speak for themselves," Tuttle says. "One person in 250 million dies of bat-borne rabies a year."

Considering that millions of bats live in and around human habitations, that number is probably less than you'd expect. Furthermore, bats go to great lengths to avoid confrontations with people. Rabies in bats hovers around one-half of one percent (on par with any other small mammal).

You're much more likely to get rabies from domesticated animals.

But never mind rabies, worry about the animals themselves. Last year there were some 8,000 reported incidents of dogs attacking people, resulting in 14 documented fatalities. In defense of the family dog, Tuttle further points out that if you're really concerned about your safety, consider the hundreds of people killed by their spouses each year.

The story becomes even more absurd when you look into the specifics behind these rabid bat bites: One joker found a sick bat in a bar. He and his buddies took to dunking the bat in a mug of beer. Naturally, the bat bit him.

Common sense dictates you avoid handling any wild animal, especially a sick one.

"I wouldn't have bats in your living space," Tuttle says. "But in a wall or external crevice, I don't see any problem."

The fuel behind the rabies terror may be the fear of local health officials. Not fear of rabies, that is, but of lost budgets: millions of dollars a year for rabies suppression programs. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that from 1985 to 1995, there was an average of two rabies fatalities a year; and some states with annual, million-dollar rabies programs haven't seen a rabies fatality in a decade.

Tuttle applauds the long-standing system for vaccinating pets and treating people, which he says runs smoothly. But he believes some health officials are looking to justify their large budgets by stirring up false concerns.

Currently, Bat Conservation International and the CDC are working together to publish national guidelines explaining how to safely co-exist with bats.

Sometimes it's just a case of educating people. Tuttle cites instances where a town has prohibited the construction of bat houses, believing things like bat urine can carry rabies. After a few phone calls and some background information from BCI, the town actually reverses its position and begins promoting bat houses.

But bat haters persist, like the animal control agencies in New York and Pennsylvania, which still exterminate bats when and where they find them, according to BCI.

Bats are an integral part of our environment, whether they're consuming tons of insects a night, pollinating saguaros or otherwise filling their niche in a complex ecosystem. People can co-exist with bats, just as long as they let animal control deal with sick or wounded bats, keep from handling or pestering them and, for crying out loud, don't bob them in beer mugs.

For more information, check out Bat Conservation International's website at www.batcon.org. Centers for Disease Control statistics are available online at www.cdc.gov.

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