Bats, keeping the same hours as other nocturnal creatures like owls and coyotes, sometimes also share the unfair stigma of being creepy, spooky and the carrier of a horrible, potentially fatal disease. Being a common subject of horror movies and the animal form of shape shifting, blood sucking vampires probably hasn’t helped their reputation, either.
Even the relatively positive modern connection of the caped super hero, Batman, has the underlying connotation of a lonely, angst-ridden brooder with a propensity for stealth and violence.
But the only winged mammal on the planet has its place in the world, if the humans that share it can see past preconceived notions, prejudices and outright misinformed thinking about the creatures.
Bats are usually good neighbors, and Missouri Department of Conservation Natural History Biologist Susan Farrington says she would even be comfortable having them take up quarters in her attic.
“They eat a ton of insects, they are fairly clean, and they don’t chew up wires,” she says.
Some bat species worldwide eat fruit and nectar, and some Central and South American species will bite other mammals -- mostly sleeping cattle -- and lap up the blood. But the bat species native to Missouri, 14 in all, eat insects exclusively.
The bats seen flitting around street lamps and through trees at dusk are hunting bugs like moths, beetles, stoneflies and mosquitoes, Farrington says, though mosquitoes probably aren’t their main dish.
And people definitely aren’t. Despite the horror movie cliché, it is extremely unlikely a person would be bitten by a bat while sleeping and not know it, and bats don’t aggressively fly at people and bite them, Farrington says.
She does understand why people wouldn’t want to share living quarters with them, however, though there is practically no risk of transmission of rabies from bats to humans unless a sick animal is handled and manages to bite or scratch someone. That is easily avoided by taking the precaution of wearing leather gloves and long sleeves when handling such an animal, Farrington says.
The cases of rabies in humans that do occur yearly in the U.S. are very rare, with an average of one to three cases reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those cases also don’t necessarily involve bats. Any mammal can be a carrier of rabies, a virus spread through the saliva of an infected animal through a bite or, rarely, when infected saliva gets into an open wound or mucous membrane in the mouth or eyes.
While the disease is rare, anyone who has been bitten or scratched by a wild animal should clean the wound and seek medical attention right away. Rabies is easily treatable in humans if caught early, but otherwise fatal. Keeping pet dogs and cats current on rabies vaccinations, usually given once a year, will protect them and their owners from getting the disease in the first place. Once infected, rabies is fatal to any animal.
If a homeowner still isn’t convinced to let the bats be and wants them gone, they do need to know a few things, Farrington says. One is that they are protected, and killing them is not allowed by law. Several Missouri species are threatened by white nose syndrome, a fungus contracted by bats that interrupts their hibernation cycle, weakens them and is eventually fatal in most cases.
Another is that if a property owner wants the bats excluded, or moved from a structure they are inhabiting, it’s best to do so with guidance from a wildlife expert like herself at MDC, or by consulting bat conservation experts like Bat Conservation International at batcon.org.
Exclusion devices will allow bats to leave an attic but not return; but they should not be used in June and July, as baby bats -- called pups -- cannot fly and would be trapped inside to die. Instead, she suggests, wait until at least early to mid-August to exclude any problem bats.
Conservation websites can also provide instruction for those who wish to encourage the creatures to nest nearby, including blueprints for bat houses that make for even better bat neighbors.