Bat Attitudes | Feature | Chicago Reader

Bat Attitudes 

Why are you afraid of this little thing?

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"It really was a darling little thing," recalls Rita. "Our maintenance man found it lying on its back on one of our window ledges, squawking." Rita doesn't get to see too many bats where she works--on North Southport near Fullerton. So the encounter, about a month ago, made this particular Monday morning special.

A lot of old people live in the building where Rita works and she knew that not all of them would find a squawking bat darling. (She would later ask reporters not to mention the name of the place where she works, and she asked me not to use her real name. The first question people ask when they're looking for a nice place for Grandma to live is not "Do you get plenty of bats here?") Using a broom like a pizza paddle, Rita and the janitor turned the bat over so it could fly away. It didn't. It then occurred to Rita that this bat might not be altogether normal.

Rita called the Anti-Cruelty Society ("I couldn't kill anything"). The dispatcher told her to sweep the animal into a box until their field rescue people got there.

Some people may think that, as wild-animal captures go, picking up shoe boxes with zonked bats in them is pretty dull stuff. "No chase or anything," the ACS worker who made the pickup acknowledged later. "Nothing exciting." But anytime you get within biting distance of a wild animal, there is the potential for drama. The bat was behaving suspiciously unlike a bat. Normally nocturnal, it was abroad in daylight. It was found near the ground instead of in its accustomed elevated roost, and it did not flee. SOP in the animal-control business is to assume that such eccentricities mean an animal is sick, and thus potentially dangerous. This bat was later killed by the ACS--an overdose of barbiturate, through a needle--so that its brain tissue could be analyzed for the presence of the virus that causes rabies.

It was a routine precaution that in this case had a less-than-routine result. The test for rabies was made at a city lab in the Loop on Tuesday. By Wednesday the results had been forwarded to the Western Avenue office of Peter Poholik, director of the city of Chicago's Animal Care and Control Commission, who passed on the word to his staff: "We got a confirmed case of rabies in the bat."

So delicately poised is the city's rabies-alert mechanism that it can be triggered by an animal light enough to be mailed anywhere in the United States at postcard rates. All city departments whose personnel might come into contact with animals, such as street crews and the police, were notified that a rabid animal had been found on the north side. Two-man units from Poholik's office were dispatched to scout the alleys and gangways along a three-block stretch of Southport and adjacent streets for stray animals that might have encountered the bat. Poholik himself joined four of his office staff in a door-to-door canvass of the same blocks, explaining to anxious residents the ABCs of life in areas where rabid animals have been found. Keep your pets on leashes, they were told. Make sure Fido has his shots. Call the city if you see any strays. Report any animal bites at once. TV crews, perhaps expecting to see something like the final scenes from Old Yeller, found only bureaucrats handing out brochures. Like the woman from the ACS said, nothing exciting.

Like any urban residents, the people on this stretch of Southport face the risk of death every day, from tax reassessors, moving-van drivers, and the usual urban villains. But rabies, also known as hydrophobia, is a more gruesome death than most. An infection of the central nervous system, rabies can be contracted by any warm-blooded animal. It is most readily transmitted via the saliva of an infected animal, usually as a result of bites. Cures of rabies in humans are possible, and newer vaccines make treatment less horrible than it used to be, when the only difference between the disease and the cure was the dying. But rabies remains a killer, especially if its symptoms are not recognized and treated early.

Rabies is common among such wild animals as skunks, foxes, ferrets, and weasels. A few years ago there was a mini-epidemic of rabies around the state; of the roughly 500 cases discovered, four out of five were in skunks. The virus is transmitted from such wild populations to humans either directly (by wild-animal bites) or indirectly (by infected dogs and cats biting people).

The chain of transmission has been understood for decades, and it was decades ago that the state passed a rabies-control law, administered by each county. Like most sizable municipalities, Chicago runs its own program, but it must also conform to the protocols and procedures set by Cook County. Pets are required to be inoculated against rabies. Stray dogs and cats are impounded for ten days--long enough for symptoms to appear in an infected animal--before disposal. Captured wild animals that have bitten someone or even come into close contact with people are routinely killed so that their brains can be tested for rabies. Two local rabies labs--one run by the state public health department, the other run by the city--together conduct such tests on roughly 1,800 animals each year.

As noted, any warm-blooded animal, from a polecat to a preschooler, can transmit the virus to humans. Dogs, however, are by far the most common source because of their close association with people. The last case in Chicago of confirmed human exposure to a sick bat was in 1983, when three rabid bats were collected from a playground near Cabrini-Green.

That day 17 children were exposed to the virus but not bitten. None became infected. In fact, contracting the disease directly from a bat is about as likely as being beaned by a Mike Bielecki home run while unicycling down Waveland. Getting struck by lightning--everybody's favorite example of a rare natural hazard--happened to seven people in Chicago suburbs in one week alone last August. In all the years that records have been kept, there has not been a single case of bat-induced rabies in humans in Cook County.

Indeed, in the last 40 years there have been fewer than a dozen such cases in the United States and Canada combined. Dr. Merlin Tuttle, the former mammalogist at the Milwaukee Public Museum who founded and now serves as executive director of Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas, likes to tell audiences that one is less likely to be bitten by a rabid bat than to contract food poisoning at a church picnic.

Such statistics belie the view, still held in some circles, that bats are to rabies what the Medellin cartel is to crack. For example, the most recent editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica--the standard source for information that used to be true--report that while bats can pass on the infection to other animals, they do not themselves die from it. Bats are "presumably the natural host" for rabies, the Britannica article states, and the disease persists in that species as "an asymptomatic infection."

Not so, says Joel Pond, a veterinary technician at the Lincoln Park Zoo. "A bat that gets rabies," he says, "is going to die from it." He explains, in the tone of a man remembering that the 50s also gave us McCarthyism, that "a lot of the research done on rabies was done in the 1950s." The bats-as-carrier thesis found an eager audience in an era obsessed with subversives. And it was not the first time that careless research besmirched the reputation of the innocent. Subsequent work confirmed, however, that rabies is not an asymptomatic infection in bats. The confusion came about because bats do harbor a rabies-like virus that is fatal to laboratory mice but is harmless to both bats and humans.

Nor are bats a reservoir for the rabies virus that infects such wild animals as skunks, says Gene Gardner, a wildlife researcher at the Illinois Natural History Survey in Urbana. Rabies viruses are of two types. The "mad" or "excited" strain produces the grim symptoms commonly associated with the disease--irritability that in its more aggravated stages approaches viciousness, and the spastic contractions of the throat muscles typical of the disease. There is also a paralytic or "dumb" strain of the rabies virus. That strain does not cause "mad dog" aggression but a debilitation so general that the afflicted animal cannot even move, much less attack. It is this paralytic strain that is usually found in bats.

"No one is absolutely sure how the disease is transmitted from bat to bat," explains Pond. Species of bats that live in colonies appear to become infected via the feces or urine of their companions, even by breathing the air of crowded caves; how it is passed on among more solitary species is less clear. However it is transmitted, the incidence of rabies among the bat population in general is thought to be low--estimates range from 1 percent to as low as a quarter of a percent.

Of course, even a low incidence of the disease will produce a lot of sick bats if the affected population is large. No urban bat populations rival those of the great bat caves, such as the one outside San Antonio, Texas, that houses an estimated 40 million Mexican free-tailed bats each summer. Cities can harbor a surprising number of bats, however. Austin, Texas, for example, is thought to be home to a million such animals of roughly a dozen species.

No Chicago animal expert pretends to know or is even willing to guess how many bats might reside in the metropolitan area. For one thing, because some species migrate, their numbers fluctuate with the seasons. The little brown bat and the big brown bat are colonial nesters that live here year-round, while the more solitary "tree bats," such as the silver-tipped bat, the hoary bat, and the red bat, follow the birds and the ball players south every winter.

However, variability isn't the obstacle to population study that invisibility is. Bats roost during the day, and in their folded-up state are tiny. The trees in a city park may be full of bats that are never seen; similarly, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chicago buildings host colonies ranging in size from a couple of dozen to several hundred without their human occupants being aware of them. "I look out my office window, and I don't see any dogs," says Poholik. "Does that mean there are no dogs in the city of Chicago?"

It's likely that even rabid bats pose only marginal dangers to a sensible human, although staff members at Cook County's animal-control unit concede they have no idea how much of a problem bats are when it comes to rabies. Not only do bats stay away from people as a rule, but most people, revulsed or afraid, stay away from bats. The problem is with kids. Poholik remembers with a shiver that when his crew showed up to collect those three rabid bats at the Cabrini-Green playground in 1983, some boys had picked up the animals and were chasing frightened girls with them. It is as unusual for an unprovoked bat to bite a human as it is for a human to bite a bus, but a bat, healthy or ill, will bite when it is carelessly handled.

The putative bloodthirstiness of bats is owing to the behavior of what might be called a trouble-making minority. Vampire bats comprise only a handful of the planet's roughly 1,000 species, but they loom large in the minds of a public more familiar with Dracula movies than with mammalogy texts. Vampire bats dwell exclusively in the tropical parts of the Western Hemisphere, where they feed on the blood of livestock. They don't suck blood but lick it from superficial wounds they slice into their victims' skins. Because vampire bats on feeding forays occasionally bite people (usually farmers sleeping in open quarters with their animals) rabies in humans is a problem in areas inhabited by vampire species.

The closest thing to a bloodsucking vampire as far north as Chicago, however, is a city building inspector. In these latitudes, "attacks" by bats on humans are almost always the result of either mistaken identity--screech owls in the dark do a passable bat imitation--or misunderstanding of bat behavior. "A bat is going to brush past you if you corner it in a small space," explains Lincoln Park Zoo's Pond, "but it's not going to hurt you." Bats that "attack" boats at night are trying to catch the insects attracted by running lights or fishing lanterns, just as they try to catch the gnats that often buzz unseen above the heads of evening strollers.

In the ordinary course of events--and our local bats lead quite ordinary lives--a bat will never come close to a human. The bat that crash-landed on Southport Avenue was probably a silver-tipped bat, also known as a silver-haired bat. Two-and-a-half inches long, the grayish bat is a migrant that spends its winters in the south and its summers in solitary feeding among the treetops of the city. Along with the other species that frequent this area, the silver-tipped bat can be found anywhere. Their most popular haunts seem to be the larger city parks and older buildings of some size, although Pond once found one outside the 23rd floor of a Loop office building.

Bats precede even the most prescient real estate developer in desirable industrial neighborhoods. Poholik has learned that whenever an old factory or warehouse is torn down his office will get a spurt of bat calls, as the displaced colonies seek new shelter. Bats in other cities have been known to colonize storm sewers, which are ready-made bat caves; but the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District staff reports no such squatters in Chicago. As for belfries--well, Northwestern University at least seems to have very few bats in its belfries, if the number of encounters with bats reported by campus maintenance crews is any clue.

Generally, bats' preferences in residential real estate do not match those of the city's humans. Pond says that there aren't a lot of bats on the Gold Coast, for example, in spite of the many roosting sites provided by its venerable apartment buildings. (Those buildings have lots of nooks and crannies, as well as crooks and nannies; a half-inch crack is a condo to a bat.) Bat fanciers who have searched for them using ultrasonic sound detectors, which pick up their high-frequency echolocation signals, report that bats also are scarce in the bungalow belt of the northwest side.

Bats can be seen more often in the city during this time of year, however: migratory species are on the move, as they will be again come spring. And migration means the risk of misfortune to a bat. Says the Natural History Survey's Gardner, "Usually when you find a bat hanging from the porch or in the yard, it's suffering from the rigors of migration. It's wet and cold, or it was knocked from its perch by a heavy rain."

Just as a bat's appearance after sunup is not in itself proof that it is ill, neither is listlessness. Many found bats are mired in a recurrent lethargy known as facultative torpor. Catching mosquitoes on the fly is inherently a high-energy life-style. And because bats' ratio of body surface to body volume is so high, they lose more heat per unit of weight (and thus need to generate more calories) than much larger mammals. Bats' thermal inefficiency is also partly explained by the expanse of bare skin that covers their wings. Birds suffer similar problems but have an advantage over bats in being covered by feathers, which are enormously more efficient than fur as insulation.

If bats ran their muscles' engines with conventional mammalian metabolic systems, they would have to stoke them almost constantly, 24 hours a day. This is impossible in Illinois, where their preferred prey is available only at night, and even then during only some parts of the year.

To cope, bats have evolved a variety of energy-saving tricks. In their winter roosts, for example, bats typically gather in clusters, since a bunch of little bats clinging together behaves thermally like one big bat. More peculiar is the bat's ability to drop its body temperature close to the temperature of its environment.

"They have different phases of rest," explains an admiring Gardner. "During winter, they are true hibernators. On a chilly day in spring or fall they can also go into a torporous state; it isn't true hibernation, but it's still a deeper 'sleep' than their normal diurnal rest. They'll open their mouths and hiss--they're mentally alert--but they won't open their eyes. That's a torpid bat." Researchers will sometimes stick a bat into a refrigerator to chill out before attempting to, say, take its blood, because they are easier to handle. Brown bats have been kept alive in refrigerators for nearly a year.

It doesn't take long for a bat to become torpid. "In five minutes they're cold as a fish," says Jack Schmidling. Schmidling, once a successful Chicago engineer, is now that rarest of free enterprise's flowers, the free-lance bat expert. He has produced the half-hour instructional film Bats Are Beautiful. He explains that rousing itself from torpor can be very costly to a bat in terms of energy expenditure; late in the year, when doing so uses up fat reserves needed to sustain it through the winter or migration, it can eventually prove fatal.

Even the experts, however, can't reliably distinguish the symptoms of facultative torpor from those of illness. That's why animal-control officials warn the public to avoid any bat that is behaving sluggishly.

The effect of such prudence, however, is to leave people with the unfortunate impression that whenever they have a chance encounter with a bat, it's kill or be killed. Pond has rescued more than his share of bats from the homes and offices of perplexed people who call the zoo for advice. (He does it as a favor to the bats, such service being unrelated to his zoo job.) With rare exceptions, the bats he meets in this way are more miserable than menacing.

They've blundered through an open window while chasing a moth, perhaps, or were forced by hot weather to leave sweltering attic roosts for cooler quarters downstairs, or were simply fagged out after a long flap.

In such situations many people panic. Brooms, tennis rackets, insect sprays, even meat-tenderizer mallets are among the weapons used to kill such intruders. Pond, with a different agenda, prefers cardboard tubes; he scoops the bats up for deposit in the nearest park. He chooses a tree branch high enough above the ground that they won't be ravaged by kids or dogs, where they can rest before they rouse themselves enough to fly away.

The attitude that the only good bat is a dead bat understandably irks bat fanciers like Pond. "There's no reason to kill them," he complains. Indeed, there is good reason not to do that. All Illinois bats are protected under state wildlife statutes. These laws generally prohibit the killing of wild animals except for officially designated vermin--and bats are not designated vermin--and animals whose killing is controlled by hunting. Technically a home owner who finds a bat on the premises is supposed to request a nuisance animal removal permit from the state's Department of Conservation before killing it.

The permit process takes a week to ten days, and it will surprise no one that hardly anyone bothers to comply. But in fact, says DOC staffer Sue Lauzon, some professional exterminators won't touch a bat job because of the law. Complying means paperwork and delays, and not complying can leave one open to a charge, especially if the firm unwittingly destroys one of the state's officially designated endangered bats.

"It's a gray area," Gardner concedes about the enforcement of that statute. Most of the state's endangered bats are found in the wilds of far southern Illinois. "The bats people find in cities are usually one of the two species of brown bats, which are fairly common," he says, "so we sort of look the other way."

Like most prejudices, the one against bats thrives on misinformation. Bats are not the filthy animals that many people believe them to be, although the smell and the sight of half-eaten food fouling a big roost may remind one of college students. Nor are they "flying rodents," as Dave Kehr described them in a Tribune review of Batman; bats stand closer to movie reviewers on the evolutionary ladder than they do to mice, a fact that would be more widely known if bats themselves didn't try so hard to keep it quiet.

In this country, the bat has come to symbolize kinky sex and bad movie acting, but in Asia it is regarded as a symbol of luck. The difference may be explained by the fact that in Asia the bats are mostly day-flying fruit eaters. That our bats are evening feeders is the source of most of our fear. They also have powers--such as the ability to "see" in the dark--that we regard as supernatural, and they do their work unseen by all but a few.

Bats' true harmlessness has never been a factor in the bat anecdotes that are a staple of our newspaper columnists, however. About a year and a half ago, Dan Haley, editor of Oak Park's weekly Wednesday Journal, came home late to find a live bat in his living room. His published account of the encounter had all the usual ingredients of the genre-rampant speciesism, a defenseless child sleeping in the next room, a panicky spouse, and a broom. Of course all combined to produce a needless and violent death. Haley concluded with a public-service message: "Put in your screens," he warned, "wrap your hair in a scarf, stick a broom under the bed, and put a crucifix under your pillow."

In that one sentence Haley resurrected most of the batophobe's hoarier fears. (The fear that a bat may accidentally entangle itself in a woman's hair is unfounded; also curious, considering how many women willingly pay guys named Ric $50 to do the same thing.)

Local members of Bat Conservation International called and wrote to complain about Haley's triumphant account of the murder. Among them was local activist Bobbie Raymond, who argued in effect that the suburb's formal commitment to diversity ought to be extended even to those tiny residents incapable of hiring lawyers.

Raymond proposed that an educational forum, in which Haley would be expected to participate, be staged during Halloween week last year. And since educational forums are to Oak Park what floor shows are to Las Vegas, some 70 people showed up at the local library. They watched a video of Schmidling's Bats Are Beautiful, petted a live bat brought in by Joel Pond, and had their horizons broadened generally. "Dan was great," Raymond recalls about the chastened editor. "I won't say that he ate crow. But he did eat a little bat."

A week after Rita found the bat on the window ledge, life had returned to normal along North Southport. Poholik's crews had picked up a dog and a cat during their sweep and impounded both; both turned out to have been inoculated against rabies and were returned to their owners with their brains intact. No one called the city to report any stray animals, and no one reported any animal bites; any abnormal excitement shown by residents could be explained by the Cubs' having clinched the division.

A few pets probably got vaccinations they wouldn't have gotten otherwise, and Rita got an interesting story to tell at parties, so the bat can't be said to have died in vain. That bat also had its reward in the form of an unexpectedly quick end to its suffering, a happier fate than usually befalls its kind in such circumstances. Poholik's people went back to chasing some of the 20 to 30 thousand dogs and cats running loose in the city, and the only people running around foaming at the mouth were real estate agents, who always look like that in this neighborhood. Like the woman said, nothing exciting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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