For years “bat attacks” in my Minnesota residences wrought terror so extreme I was reduced to a quivering mass. What! Malevolent creatures flying across the moon, then swooping into my hair! Didn’t they carry rabies? On dark winter nights, I heard them scratching and squeaking inside the walls. I taped up a small door to a crawl space, and NEVER opened it afterwards. I pounded on the walls to scare them. Once a claw emerged through the bathroom vent. I ran screeching from the room and refused to enter for 24 hours.
Worse yet, one night I woke up to something crawling in my pillow case. Shrieking I lept out of bed, fled to the hallway, and collapsed. While my husband beat the pillow on the floor, I could not look. When he dumped the contents into the toilet, I peaked over his shoulder. There floating in the bowl was our four-year-old daughter’s hamster. I don’t remember how long we sat on the bathroom floor in a stupor.
I know I’m weak and sniveling. I admit I always turn over bat capture to the resident guy. If none was resident, I’d drag in someone off the street. I only get involved once the critter has been thrown outside. Usually this is the next day. And winter. Once I couldn’t find the invader. Husband # 2 said he’d thrown it into the trash can. When the garbage guy lifted the top, something flew up and out. We watched him starting around, with a very puzzled look on his face.
I’ve taken at least three dead bats (frozen to death) to the University of Minnesota Ag campus to have them tested for rabies. None has ever tested positive.A few years ago we installed a bat house on the northern, highest point of the house–it’s where the bats seemed to emanate. Who knows if it’s the right spot because, truth to tell, we now have fewer bats around. I’m probably testing providence when I admit it’s been a year since we had a bat attack in the house.
Of course, they don’t attack. They, like mice, compress their bodies through unbelievably tiny spaces and then begin flying in their erratic, sonar mode. Often it’s a winter warm spell that wakes them out of hibernation too early. They reaching toward warmth – i.e. inside, rather than cold outdoors. I should pity them, really, but I can’t shake the memory of that squirming mass in my pillow–even thought it wasn’t a bat.
Lately, my fear and concern have shifted. Now I’m afraid FOR the bats, not OF them. Eastern bats have been dying in droves from something called “white nose syndrome.” This fungal disease made its way to the U.S. from Europe where bats have developed an immunity. How long, how many hundreds or thousands of years it took for this immunity to develop, we don’t know. But like other foreign invasions, the presence of this fungus has been lethal on bats without the immunity – aka all American bat colonies that come into contact with it.
Many states, including Minnesota, have bat caves where huge numbers of bats live, sleep, wake and fly around . Where they go home to roost after eating millions, billions of mosquitoes. Like so many other companions in the natural world (Yes, Dorothy, we humans are actually natural, part of nature, though we often act as if we aren’t.), bats have a crucial niche. They devour small flying insects in exorbitant numbers. No Minnesota bat sucks blood! I promise. Furthermore, the more bats there are, the more they help keep these flying menaces in check. Doing us a huge service. Not that they care about us. They care about living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and mating. And not being sick.
Now some statistics. According to the Center for Biological Diversity: some 7 million bats in 22 Eastern U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have died of white-nose syndrome. Now the fungus has been discovered in Arkansas and in several Minnesota bat caves. These caves are in two Minnesota state parks–Mystery Cave in southeastern Minnesota (with 2300 bats) and Soudan Underground Mine in northeastern Minnesota with between 10,000 and 15,000 bats. (StarTribune, 8/10/13)
The Center for Biological diversity calls the white-nose syndrome outbreak “the worst wildlife epidemic in history.” It’s not that we–you, me and the guys next door–have caused this, but we could suffer significantly if bats in North America are reduced to such small numbers that they don’t survive.
It’s time to stop being afraid OF the bats and begin fearing FOR them. We need to recognize them as comrades deserving a chance for survival. Forget Batman. Forget Dracula! And call the Department of Natural Resources to urge that they close these two caves to tourists–651-296-6157. Human contact with the fungus spores transfers the spores indiscriminately. Not even washing clothes will kill white-nose fungus spores. Only washing clothes in a 6% bleach solution. That’s asking a lot. Not to mention wiping off shoes, and all other items carried into the caves. The chance to make a difference is NOW. We also have a great opportunity to educate kids and adults about how our behavior can make or break chances of survival–our own and other species. We are in this together.