The death of a B.C. man after contracting rabies from a bat on Vancouver Island has sparked concern about the dangers of the cave-dwelling creatures of the night.
But one bat expert has some simple advice to stay safe around the wild animal: Leave them alone.
“As long as they aren’t where people and pets can come into contact with them, just don’t touch wildlife, let alone bats,” Mandy Kellner, provincial coordinator of the BC Community Bat Program, told Black Press Media Tuesday.
According to the Ministry of Health, the man came into contact with the bat in mid-May and developed symptoms six weeks later, sending him to hospital. The exact details of how he got the rabies virus – whether through a bite or scratch or otherwise – has not been made clear, nor the specific location of the incident on Vancouver Island.
Rabies can be prevented if the bitten person gets a vaccination boost quickly, according to health officials, but if left untreated can affect a person’s nervous system and brain. Initial symptoms include tingling, prickling or itching around the bite area, followed by flu-like symptoms such as a fever, nausea or headaches.
Over time, the sickness worsens, and an infected person can start feeling agitated and irritable, have hallucinations or muscle spasms – and at worse seizures and paralysis.
“It is a very sad story and I feel so badly for the young man’s family,” Kellner said. “I don’t know the details on the situation that led to the interaction with the bat, but this highlights the need for people to respond correctly to encounters with all wildlife, bats included - the best approach is to always leave wild animals alone.”
A bat ‘acting weird’ could indicate it has a disease
B.C. is home to the most types of bats in Canada – or 16 of the 19 known species in the nation. Roughly 13 per cent of bats brought in for testing are found to have rabies, according to the province. Kellner estimated the rate is closer to one per cent among the entire bat population, as most of those bats brought in for testing are ones identified after acting odd.
If a bat is acting weird, such as sitting on the road or sidewalk or is out in plain sight during the daytime, Kellner said it is more likely they have a disease and caution is urged.
However, “just because there is a bat roosting on the side of your house doesn’t mean they are sick,” she said.
Mothers birth their pups during the early summer months, and often find spots for their “maternity roosts.” This means that by mid-summer those pups are grown up enough to be out on their own and are more likely to be spotted. But if they are perched on your roof, they aren’t sending a bat signal and the same don’t-touch rules apply.
“That’s raising alarm for people,” Kellner said, “but 99 per cent of those bats will go into the night if you leave them. Sometimes they stay for three or four days and then they will be gone.”
If a bat manages to get into a house or building, Bat Conservation International recommends remaining quiet and patient while giving it plenty of exit options. There’s currently no animal conservation organization that specifically helps deal with removing bats.
Any direct contact with a bat must be taken seriously, Kellner said, and someone possibly exposed to rabies should visit a doctor immediately.
This includes contact between pets and bats, which can then be spread to humans. Kellner encouraged owners to ensure their pets are immunized, and vets can provide booster shots if needed.
“We’ve all seen Cujo, rabies is in pets is a very serious issue,” she said, adding that cats are major predators of bats and will need a rabies booster regularly.”
‘We sincerely hope that this tragic event does not turn public opinion’
Kellner, along with the rest of the BC Bat Action Team, has been tracking the bat population, and is currently hosting its annual bat count.
Their work became crucial after the 2016-17 season saw a higher-than-usual bat mortality rate, linked to white-nose syndrome. The group created a plan which includes 84 actions to combat the wildlife crisis, but Kellner said the disease is proving to be a serious threat to the bat population.
“We sincerely hope that this tragic event does not turn public opinion, at a time when bats are facing various conservation crises, including large-scale mortality from white-nose syndrome,” Kellner said. “Keeping bat roosts safe across B.C. is essential to ensuring bats have the habitats they will require to weather and recover from white-nose.”
All bats in the province are insectivorous, and eat large amounts of insects each night, including mosquitoes and other pests, Kellner said, which in turn helps keep forests and agriculture healthy.
“They are more valuable than we know, until they are gone,” she said.