I grew up like most people, thinking bats were creepy, scary, disease carriers and something to be genuinely feared. I thought most carried rabies. I didn’t ever try to learn anything about them, nor did I care to. I have since learned that the old saying is true: “People fear most what they understand least.”
I was in veterinary school when I had my first bat encounter. I was a second year student, it was a Friday in April, and we (students that is) were getting ready for our annual veterinary school open house. It was late in the afternoon when my tired and weary body was making its way towards my car in the parking lot. It was a warm afternoon and the sun was shining brightly. I was almost to my car when something just seemed to fall from the sky. I heard a metal ping as it hit my hubcap and fell to the ground just a foot or so in front of me. Whatever it was didn’t move. I walked up to the fallen object and stared at it– this thing that was lying on the ground next to the front left tire of my car. I saw fur and ears that looked like a mouse, but then I saw the movement of what looked like wings. I didn’t have a clue what this “thing” was. All I knew is that it was certainly odd-looking. I heard a noise and noticed the anatomy professor on the dock in back of the anatomy lab. I walked up to him and asked him to come look at this strange “thing” that had fallen from the sky. I told him it looked like a cross between a mouse and a bird. He squatted down and looked for a minute, then said, “Oh wow, that’s a bat.” Our first clue that something was wrong was that it was broad daylight with the sun shining brightly and this bat seemed to just fall from the sky. The anatomy professor went inside and got a large jar and scooped the bat inside. I went home. The next day the bat was in the jar and on display for the public to view at open house. The lid had holes punched in it and the lid had been taped securely to the jar. It was a hit for sure, especially with the kids. Long story short, the bat died and a decision was made to check it for rabies. It came back positive. The bat indeed had rabies.
My second experience with a bat was in 1987. I had graduated from veterinary school and been practicing for two years. A client called me to tell me she had let her dogs outside that afternoon when 2 bats flew out of the eaves of her home. One bat flew off and the other hit the sidewalk and just sort of flopped. Her 3 month old puppy had approached the bat. It was still daylight and the sun was out. She asked me if she should be concerned. My answer to her was yes. I told her we could check the bat for rabies and instructed her how to safely handle the bat. She brought it in wrapped in plastic wrap. Though I had certainly not seen many bats at all up close, I remember thinking this bat definitely didn’t look healthy. It was deceased when brought in and I could tell it was emaciated and dehydrated, appearing very shriveled up. It’s hair was dull and unhealthy looking. Normally the state lab expects veterinarians to remove the head of any animal we test for rabies as it is the brain that the test is done on. I made the decision that I would submit the entire bat (which I later was chastised for). My number one reason for this was because the bat was so very small (about as long as my index finger) with a teeny tiny head and I was afraid I would do more damage trying to remove the head. My second reason was since this bat didn’t appear healthy to me at AT ALL, I really wasn’t all that thrilled about exposing myself to possible rabies. Eleven days later, I was informed that the bat had indeed been rabid. At that point, the Metro Rabies Control office was contacted. The puppy had not yet been vaccinated for rabies. The rabies control officers went to the client’s home to pick up the puppy. It was impossible to be able to know if the puppy had been bitten by the bat, so the rabies control officers used an aluminum “catch-all pole” (a long aluminum pole with a snare loop at the end) to handle the puppy which disturbed the owners who were told that this was standard procedure. Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal and they could not take chances on an officer being bitten. The puppy was put to sleep and her head was sent to the state lab for rabies testing. It was negative. I found out later that seventy-nine cases of rabies had been reported in Tennessee that year (1987) with six bats, three cats, two cows, three dogs, one fox and sixty-four skunks infected. This case ended up terribly sad for me. In the end, we had one dead rabid bat, one dead puppy who wasn’t even infected with rabies, and one devastated family who had lost their beloved puppy (who by the way they had adopted after rescuing it from a trash bin). The family commented in the end that the puppy never seemed to have a chance. They were threatened with a court order if they didn’t go along with what metro wanted to do immediately.
I guess this case is what “sparked” my interest in bats. It was then that I started reading all I could find about them. My curiosity was soaring about these mysterious creatures. The more I read, the more I learned, and the more fascinated I became with these amazing animals. There are so many myths about bats that I had been guilty of believing. I learned that bats are some of the most beneficial animals to humans. These gentle creatures, and especially vampire bats, have received such bad press (Hollywood hasn’t helped). I will tell you what I learned about bats in part 2, and in part 3, I will talk about vampire bats.