Bat Rap

Why are people always picking on the order Chiroptera?

In one primeval tale, bats were just miserable birds pining to be human. Their prayers were indeed answered, but with a twist: While receiving human faces--albeit homely ones--along with hair and teeth, they otherwise remained mostly bird. Embarrassed by their new look, they opted for the obscurity of night.

This folkloric snippet, from India's Kanarese farmers, could be an ancient primer on being careful what you ask for. Which brings us, oddly enough, to Magee Middle School. On March 16, about 800 students were evacuated from Magee, on Tucson's eastside. The next day saw a similar evacuation. In both cases, the culprits were tiny Mexican free-tailed bats, 132 of which were perfunctorily removed over several weeks.

But while the bats were miniscule, the uproar they sparked was not. Parents were in a tizzy; officials were fretting; and animal removal pros were suiting up for work.

So what was behind this bizarre rumpus? Gary McCracken thinks he might have a clue. McCracken is a noted bat biologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He's also an expert in bat folklore. For him, those divergent disciplines bear a single conclusion: "Bats get a bad rap," he says. "And I think it has to do where they hang out.

"Folklore refers to these kinds of creatures as 'liminal,' in that they're not right at the surface," he explains. "They live in caves underground. Traditionally, the underground has been associated with devils and demons. They live in abandoned buildings; they live in church steeples.

"They live in spooky places," he says, "and they have beady little eyes. In a way, they look like grotesque little people."

In large part, Marc Hammond's livelihood comes from assuaging such human perceptions. He's co-owner of Animal Experts Wildlife Services, and was contracted by the Tucson Unified School District to remove Magee's bats.

"It went for about three weeks," Hammond says. "We started out on Feb. 28, and got 10 that day. On the following day, we got five."

Half of those bats were tested for rabies at the Arizona State Laboratory, he says. Another 14 were removed and tested a week later. Then Hammond's crew used exclusion devices. These miniature, one-way, doggie-door-type contraptions let bats leave, but not return. Finally, after about five days, cracks and holes--some as small as a quarter--used by bats to enter Magee were all sealed up.

But that led to collateral damage: While Mexican free-tails don't exactly hibernate, cold weather does send them into zombie-like torpors. That's what happened at Magee, where many snoozy bats got stuck inside.

"Some were in there for 10 days," Hammond says. "A lot of them were dried up. Mexican free-tailed bats--you put a couple of nickels in your hand, and that's how much they weigh. And when they dry out, it's like picking up a Kleenex."

Other late-sleepers migrated to Magee hallways, causing borderline hysteria. One child, reportedly brushed by a bat, was rushed off to begin rabies shots.

And all those bats killed and tested? They revealed nary a trace of disease.

That's no surprise to Yar Petryszyn. A biologist and curator of the UA's mammal collection, he was called to calm fears at a hastily arranged meeting with Magee officials and parents. As it happens, Petryszyn is a fit man who's trekked through caves while hordes of bats flapped overhead, and scores more crawled up his clothes or into his hair. In other words, he was the perfect candidate for providing a bit of perspective.

"I told them they were 12 times more likely to die from an attack by their neighbor's dog than by getting anything from a bat," he says. "Thirty-eight thousand people die on our roads every year, the vast majority within 20 miles of their home. I told them it's much more dangerous, by far, to drive your child to school than expose them to bats."

He told them there's exactly one bat-related rabies death in this country in a given year.

True enough, says Gary McCracken. But he's in the middle of a three-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, to research rabies in free-tail bats. And one finding is already clear: "When you have a conflict between public health and conservation," he says, "public health will always win."

At the same time, school officials were only following state health department guidelines. "If you're hit by a bat, they recommend that you have it tested," says Tim Snow, a non-game specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Bats are one of the (wild) rabies carriers, along with skunks, raccoons, coyotes and foxes."

Paradoxically, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't believe rabies transmission is airborne, says Snow. "It has to occur from a bite, or the rabies virus has to get directly into a mucous membrane. A bat would have to drool into your nose or mouth, or actually bite you."

This dichotomy leaves school officials tiptoeing a fine line between precaution and absurdity. "On the whole, the student body was really good about the bats," says Alex Gallego, TUSD facilities director. "But in this case, there was a student or two that got brushed by a bat. And then (parents start saying), 'Hey you guys didn't do enough.'"

In the future, says Gallego, "We'll have a bat protocol. That's what we're working on right now."

Short of bat drool, then, it appears Magee students and parents were primarily at risk from heart palpitations and other stress-related symptoms. Meanwhile, even though the total number of euthanized bats was small, questions linger: Should they have been killed at all? Or even removed?

Truth be known, we couldn't have better allies. As pollinators, bats are critical for survival of the rainforest, and for food plants ranging from avocados and peaches to bananas. They are also voracious bug-eaters. Each hour, one lonely bat can consume hundreds of insects. But bats are rarely alone: Huge colonies can eat tons of insects.

Yar Petryszyn knows the bat appetite firsthand. For several years, he's studied a free-tail colony, numbering around 20,000, that roosts under an eastside Tucson bridge. "I estimate they eat over two tons of insects in a year," he says. "Several years ago, the Tucson City Council even contacted me, and they wanted to spend up to $20,000 on bat houses around the city to control the mosquito problems."

All of which means that bats--long derided, demonized, killed or sent packing--deserve a little more respect and a lot less hysteria. To Gary McCracken, that means scrapping old wives' tales, folklore, misconceptions and garden-variety ignorance.

He's guardedly optimistic. "I do think our culture has a better way of looking at bats than it did a century ago," he says. "But I don't think we'll ever get past it all."

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