Both of my siblings crack me up.
My brother and I have shared a lifetime of quips and inside jokes, but my sister and I have always exchanged funny animal memes for laughs.
Being the oldest, I like to take some credit for cultivating their incredible senses of humor, but I digress.
At any rate, little sis blasted a walk-off home run a few days ago, and I doubt I will ever be able to top it.
Jokes aside, this photo gave me pause.
Perhaps the fingers in the photo belong to a skilled individual who’s wise in the ways of bats. But, given that no gloves are involved, and that countertop looks textured, I am inclined to believe these are the fingers of someone who thought the bat was cute and therefore harmless.
That kind of thinking drives me crazy.
Don’t misunderstand: Bats are beautiful and amazing creatures.
They play vital roles in the ecosystems they inhabit, and their ability to navigate via echolocation is one of the best tricks Mother Nature ever invented. They’re fascinating to watch against a twilight summer sky, and they typically go out of their way to avoid close contact with humans.
I’ll also concede that they’re pretty cute.
Well, some of them anyway.
Bats: Pathogen Purveyors
The problem is, bats serve as natural reservoirs for many viruses. The viruses don’t often cause the bats many problems, but some become highly problematic when they infect other species.
From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“Molecular studies have demonstrated that bats are natural host reservoirs for several recently emerged high-profile zoonotic viruses, including sudden acute respiratory syndrome–like coronaviruses (4); Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fever filoviruses (5,6); rabies and rabies-related lyssaviruses; and many paramyxoviruses, including rubulaviruses and Nipah and Hendra viruses (7–9). “
This does not mean that the bats flying around your neighborhood are carrying Ebola.
Bats can only carry viruses they are exposed to, and transatlantic flights are not common, so the chances of catching a virus native to the Congo from a bat flying around the suburbs are obviously low.
For that matter, it’s important to recognize that not all bats are alike.
In fact, biologists have described more than 900 bat species worldwide, and these species differ in countless ways. They inhabit different geographic ranges, exploit different food sources and embrace different reproductive strategies.
They also carry different viruses.
For example, the University of Georgia Museum of Natural History reports that the Brazilian free-tailed bat – known to mammologists as Tadarida brasiliensis — has one of the highest recorded rates of rabies among all bats.
Unfortunately for those of us living in the Peach State, this species is pretty common.
But at least it’s not Ebola, right? It’s only rabies.
Rabies: An Underappreciated Danger
Rabies isn’t a huge problem in developed countries and regions. We don’t even think about it very often, aside from getting our dogs and cats vaccinated periodically.
But rabies remains a very big problem for the developing world.
Forty-five percent of all rabies deaths occur in Asia. Rabies mortality is relatively widespread across the countries of the region, but India leads the world (so to speak), with 25,000 annual deaths.
Fortunately, treatment is available in the West and, to a lesser extent, the developing East. But without treatment, rabies has a nearly 100% fatality rate.
So, do not touch bats.
No matter how cute they are.
Bats may be the victims of countless myths and elicit quite a bit of unnecessary fear. But their potential to spread rabies is very real.
And transmission can occur much easier than you may think.
Contracting Rabies: It Doesn’t Always Happen Like You’d Think
You’d think contracting rabies would be a big deal involving some type of life-or-death battle with an angry wild animal. But that’s not always the case.
From the Georgia Rabies Control Manual:
More than half (53%) of these human cases occurred during August-November, coincident with a seasonal increase in prevalence of rabid bats detected in the United States. Despite the substantial number of cases of human rabies attributable to bat exposure, the importance of these exposures is often overlooked or underestimated. In many of these cases, the bat bite was presumably not recognized nor the risk of rabies appreciated in order to seek appropriate medical attention.
Hard though it is to believe, people occasionally fail to realize they have been bitten by a bat. Bats are tiny, and their teeth rarely cause giant, obvious wounds.
This leads the Georgia Rabies Control Manual to recommend a terrifyingly broad set of criteria that should trigger people to seek medical evaluation.
To summarize, the manual essentially recommends medical evaluation for anyone who has had close contact with a bat — even if no bite wound is visible.
This includes people who simply wake up and find a bat in their room, as well as parents who find one in the room of an unattended child.
It also includes anyone with incidental contact, such as may occur if a bat brushes against you in flight.
The Usual Suspects: Common Rabies Vectors
While bats clearly present a rabies threat, they aren’t the only animals that you’ll want to keep at arm’s length. Most parts of the U.S. are home to several animals that may transmit rabies to humans.
And most of these critters are pretty darn cute.
All mammals are thought to have the potential to carry rabies. However, it is primarily a disease of mammalian carnivores (although many of them are better described as omnivores).
A few of the most common carriers include:
Domestic dogs and cats are also important carriers, especially in places with thriving feral populations.
Herbivores — particularly small herbivores — rarely carry rabies because they typically don’t survive encounters with rabid animals. Rodents who get coyote saliva on them typically end up on the inside of said coyote, at which point their rabies status doesn’t matter.
Woodchucks are an interesting outlier.
Their tendency to carry rabies occasionally is likely due to their size, which allows them to survive predatory attacks from time to time.
For the record, the CDC identifies the raccoon as the primary reservoir for rabies in the Eastern United States, while foxes and skunks are more common carriers in the West.
But bats are still the primary culprit from a statistical perspective, as 70% of all rabies deaths in the U.S. precipitate from interactions with bats.
Cute Animals Aren’t Always Harmless
I’ve been an environmental educator for a long time. I’ve spent countless hours trying to destigmatize persecuted animals and help people feel more comfortable in the natural world.
So, this is when I usually do my typical thing and explain how scary nature isn’t.
But that’s not so easy to do this time.
I get it — baby coyotes, raccoons and foxes are too cute for words. But cute does not equal harmless. Rabies is a serious disease, and it is something people should probably take a little more seriously than they do.
That doesn’t mean you need to walk through life being terrified of the virus.
But it should seep into the public discourse enough to put an end to the countless YouTube videos depicting people unnecessarily interacting with bats, coyotes, and other potential carriers.
What Is the Likelihood of Contracting Rabies?
Despite the fact that rabies is a serious illness, you don’t need to fear that rabid animals are lurking around every corner. In fact, from a statistical standpoint, rabies is way down the list of things to worry about.
Whenever trying to calibrate my thinking on the relative risk of any natural hazard, I compare it to car accidents.
Doing so typically demonstrates two things:
- You’re unlikely to fall victim to most threats encountered while exploring the natural world. I don’t care if it’s bears, snake bite or tornadoes – these things are all low-probability events.
- Driving a car is crazy dangerous.
This pattern clearly holds for rabies.
Per the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, there are between about 1200 and 1700 traffic-related fatalities in Georgia each year. Nationwide, 30,000 to 37,000 people a year die from car wrecks.
By contrast, the CDC estimates that only two or three people die each year from rabies in the U.S. Even a century ago, the deaths only numbered 100 or so per year.
And for the record:
- Approximately four people die in the U.S. from bear attacks each year.
- Only five or six U.S. residents die from snake bite in a typical year.
- About 69 people die in tornados each year in the U.S.
It turns out that Mother Nature isn’t out to get you – it’s the jerk driving 6-inches behind you while texting that you should worry about.
Appreciate Bats (But Do So from a Distance)
It may seem like my message is a little bifurcated here.
On the one hand, I’m telling you that bats (and other cute creatures) can carry rabies, and you shouldn’t touch them.
But on the other, I’m explaining that you’re more likely to die in a car accident while driving to the Batcave than you are by catching rabies from one of Mr. Wayne’s flying friends.
Ultimately, I’d love for readers to leave understanding that bats are beautiful creatures who deserve our gratitude and respect. The vast majority of bats want nothing to do with humans, and the pest-control and pollination services they provide drastically outweigh the risks they present.
But they can carry rabies and other dangerous diseases, so you should seek medical care if you accidentally touch a bat or vice versa.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t deliberately interact with them.
Appreciate bats and other cute creatures. Just do so from a distance.
Header image from Unsplash .