Faced with white-nose syndrome, which has killed a million bats on the east coast, New York wildlife officials are considering a radical step: capturing bats and holding them in captivity until they figure out the mysterious cold-weather fungus that was first noticed just five years ago. June Kasminoff, New York’s leading bat rehabilitator, says capturing bats may be the only way to save them–but no one knows where they’ll be able to keep these high-maintenance creatures. On top of that, people are reluctant to help bats, fearing they’ll catch rabies or some kind of cooties.
“[New York state conservation officials] just held a summit and decided to pluck them out of the wild, but where to put them?” says Kasimoff, one of only a handful of people across the state that can care for bats, which require a special license because they can carry rabies. Kasimoff currently is minding 30 bats at the Bat World Big Apple, a shelter she runs out of her home on Long Island as part of Bat World International. New York state in particular wants to save the little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus)–if any are left.
She three survivors from a Bear Mountain area cave where hundreds died from the fungus, which suffocates them and eats off their wing membranes. One became pregnant, but rejected the baby, which Kasimoff is now raising. “When they have a baby, they keep it under their wings. If they have no wings, what are they going to do?” she says. The bats respond well to topical anti-fungal drugs like lamisil or mycozil, which are used to treat human toenail fungus, but she’d like to see a more practical oral medicine.
The bats they want to take in-require lots of care. They don’t like or imprint on humans. Adults may not drink from a water bowl, which requires the caretaker to deliver water to their mouth while they’re hanging. The caretaker also has to keep track of who’s eating, drinking and fighting. Bats in the region are already getting hit by the real disease, white nose syndrome, and the perception that they are the ones to blame for spreading another disease, rabies. So far in 2010, New York state has tested 915 bats for rabies–by far the most of any species–but only found it in 22 animals. (They found rabies in 152 of 532 raccoons tested, 14 of 535 cats; 22 of 48 skunks; 19 of 70 foxes. No dogs had rabies, though 308 have died to be put through the test.)
Kasimoff says that after Europeans brought rabies to North America, it spread primarily through dogs, then foxes and now raccoons (and some feral cats). But because people fear rabies from bats, they try to get rid of them or won’t help them.
“Rabies in bats is declining,” Kasimoff says. “They’re thinking bats are developing an immunity.”
Bats are often blamed when people somehow contract rabies from an unknown source–even though they often don’t remember being bitten by a bat. “I think some of them are lying. They say ‘I think I saw a bat,’” she says. “I’ve gotten bit by a bat and I can’t imagine not remembering because it really hurts.” She suspects they may have gotten rabies from a feral cat–an increasing source of the disease.
The real harm rabies does to bats is that people are afraid to help them, thinking they could magically contract the disease just by being in close proximity. So they may seal up an attic with mothers and young. Or not help a young bat fallen to the ground. (Bats can’t fly from the ground. You still shouldn’t touch one, but you can use a glove or stick to lift it to a tree.) “They wind up on the ground and probably eaten by a rabid raccoon,” she joked.
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