This book has been slowly taking shape in my mind for some 20 years, stimulated by countless phone calls from needlessly frightened, often panicked people who had just discovered one or more bats in their home or yard. My purpose is to introduce these frequently misunderstood animals to the layman, to provide solutions to problems, to dispel unnecessary fears, and to encourage an appreciation of bats and their conservation needs.
Fear of things we understand the least is a well-documented aspect of human behavior, and that is precisely the problem faced by bats. Numerous myths and superstitions have persisted because the real lives of bats are so poorly known. Health concerns that we should have and cautions that we should observe for bats are the same as those we should apply to most wild animals. It is my hope that this book will help to resolve some of the striking conflicts between the myth and reality of bats.
Some of the most commonly asked questions are: "Is it rabid?" "Will it attack or hurt me?" "What should I do?" My usual response is to ask the person to describe the problem. This is often puzzling to callers, because they think that I, of all people, should know that the mere presence of a bat constitutes a serious problem! I sympathize with people who suffer as a result of needless fear, but I must admit that I find many of their stories quite comical.
One morning, as I was walking down the hall toward my office, I heard the phone ringing incessantly. When I answered, a woman, so frightened that she could barely speak, told me that she and her husband were barricaded in their home and insisted that they were surrounded by attacking bats that had "nearly gotten them" when they had returned home the previous evening. They had spent most of the night trying to plug every possible entry and didn't dare leave the house. A few quick questions revealed that the culprits were actually migrating monarch butterflies that had spent the night resting in their yard. The mere possibility of bats had caused the most terrifying night of their lives.
In a similar case of misidentification, a county park superintendent demanded that I tell him immediately how to find bat "nests" so he could eradicate all bats living in or near his park. He claimed that four people had been attacked by rabid bats in a single week and that the county was about to be sued for failure to protect its citizens. The people in question were already taking the then painful rabies inoculations. My investigation revealed that the culprit was a screech owl guarding her nest. She was striking people on the head as they walked beneath her tree at dusk. By the time the startled victims looked around, all they could see were the silhouettes of flying bats while the owl sat hidden in the tree. Even though all of these incidents had occurred under the same tree, and despite our demonstration that there was a protective mother screech owl in the tree, one of the victims insisted on continuing the shots because he said he grew up on a farm and knew a bat when he saw one!
Once I was even asked to investigate a bat "mauling." A workman in a Tennessee Valley Authority dam claimed that he had been attacked by bats and that they had seriously lacerated his arm when he reached into a locker where they were roosting. He was rushed to a doctor, who believed his story, and immediately began rabies inoculations. When I arrived, frightened workmen were refusing to reenter the dam until they could be certain that all bats had been evicted. I met the injured man, who assured me that he had been attacked, but I knew at a glance that bats could not have inflicted such serious damage. My investigation was complicated by the man's anger, from my doubting his account, and by the fearful reluctance of his coworkers to guide me to the scene of the alleged attack. Eventually, I was able to catch one of the bats and demonstrate to the man's satisfaction that the species involved was literally incapable of breaking human skin with its tiny teeth. We then visited the locker, where I showed that a piece of unfinished metal on the inside of the locker had scratched his arm when he yanked it out in a panic. By the time I left, he was furious at the doctor for believing his story and giving him the shots!
In another instance, a family that had neglected to close windows at their summer cottage called from a motel one morning after they were panicked by a small colony of little brown bats that had taken advantage of their absence. On the previous night, after the bats had left to feed, the family had returned to the cottage and gone to bed. At 2 A.M. they awakened to find several dozen bats flying around their bedrooms. They fled in their pajamas, hiking several miles to the nearest farmhouse, where they were told that once bats had established their odor, the only remedy for getting rid of them was to burn the house down. They were extremely relieved to learn that they had been misinformed.
Unbridled fear of bats can be far more dangerous than bats themselves. For example, people have broken legs in frantic "escapes," nearly drowned when they fell offboat docks in reaction to bats in hot pursuit of mosquitoes, and I know of one instance in which an entire home was demolished when a gas fumigant exploded while being used to exterminate bats. Suffice it to say, people need answers to their questions about neighborhood bats.