‘Bats in belfry’ column sparks emotional response

A week ago, I wrote a column about my mom’s bat problem. In that piece, I explained that my mom wasn’t excited about sharing space with a bat, and since the bat was in her actual living space, following guidance from several sources at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the bat was killed, and sent away for rabies testing.

Little brown bats that are free of white-nose syndrome hibernate while clinging to a cave wall in a tight-packed group in 2011 near Allagash Lake in Maine. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mays, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist)

Little brown bats that are free of white-nose syndrome hibernate while clinging to a cave wall in a tight-packed group in 2011 near Allagash Lake in Maine. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mays, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist)

Then, the firestorm started, as furious bat lovers (and much more reasonable but equally concerned bat biologists) reached out from England, Canada and across the U.S., to set me straight.

Among the dozens of emails and comments I received, here are a few excerpts that reflect the general tone of the non-biologists:

  • “I’m tempted to cover the writer of this crappy article with a towel and stamp on him till he dies,” wrote one reader.
  • I think a better solution would have been to  “Cover the MOM with a towel, then step firmly — don’t stomp on it — and count to 100, until it dies.” FUNNY HUH?” wrote another.


  • “If you and your game warden’s attitudes and level of knowledge are examples of the citizens of Maine, I’m glad my daughter and granddaughter moved from there!” wrote yet another.

So, yes. People were angry. Many called for a retraction of the column. Instead, I’ve chosen to use this opportunity to share some bat realities that dozens of respondents felt were being ignored.

Susan Holroyd, a Canadian bat biologist, offered an alternative to dealing with bats — even those that are going to be tested for rabies.

“Basically [you do it the] same way you deal with a spider or a bee — but use a shoebox and a heavy piece of paper or cardboard,” Holroyd wrote. “Flip the box on top of the animal and slide the cardboard underneath trapping the animal in the box. You could still submit the animal for testing if someone had been exposed to its bite. And yes, wearing leather gloves is a good precaution.  Dispatching the animal should be left up to your state wildlife biologists or wardens.”

Holroyd also said bats end up on the ground for various reasons, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sick or injured.

“This time of year, it is very likely that your mom had a juvenile bat fly into her house — they are sometimes terrible flyers and get tired out easily. Or it could have been attacked by a cat or some other injury,” she wrote. “There are lots of reasons for a bat on the ground. Yes, you do have to be concerned about rabies. All wildlife (mammalian) can contract rabies. You shouldn’t handle any wildlife without concern for rabies.”

Bats are important critters and play a key role in our ecosystems. One bat can eat half its weight in insects in a single day. Bats have been unnecessarily demonized by humans who fear them.  And bats are facing major struggles, including white nose syndrome. Reader after reader told me that. They’re right.

So why did the bat in my mom’s house meet its demise? It wasn’t because I’m uncaring. It wasn’t because I get my kicks out of killing things. And it wasn’t because I don’t understand that certain bat species are listed as threatened or endangered.

It’s because I was following the advice of wildlife experts here in Maine, based on the state’s protocol for dealing with bats.

This week I reached out to Cory Mosby, the DIF&W’s small mammal and furbearer biologist. He explained the department’s stance on bats. For the record, Mosby’s a bat guy, and spent a good deal of time talking to me about bat exclusion devices, and non-lethal ways of dealing with bats. For instance, simply leaving a window open and taking out the screen will often encourage a bat to head back outdoors. But the bottom line is this: His department has a policy, which was formulated with public safety in mind.

“Currently our position is, out of an abundance of caution, any bat found in the dwelling portion of your home — inside your home proper — we recommend it be sent in for testing [for rabies],” Mosby said.

Not all bats taken to the DIF&W, and which are sent away for testing, are dead when they arrive at the Bangor headquarters. The department provides the rabies testing service for free, and has a helpful bat fact sheet on its website. One piece of information it includes: Sometimes, bat bites or scratches aren’t readily apparent. Luckily, rabies is rare in bats,

And finally, I’ll share this: The original column was not written as a how-to piece. It was not intended to offer a primer on proper bat handling.

Instead, it was offered as a snapshot of life here, in a state where we get used to living near, and among wild animals.

A silver lining to the nasty messages that some felt obliged to share: People are talking about bats.

And that’s a good thing.

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter:@JohnHolyoke

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.