Nfld. & Labrador

Holy blame game, Batman! Why bats need your help, not scorn

Far from being something to be feared, bats play a critical role in the food chain. As Andie Bulman writes, bats in Newfoundland are already under so much pressure, they are listed as endangered.
Bat populations have been decimated since white-nose syndrome was discovered in North America in 2007. (Jordi Segers)

In our pandemic-stricken world, bats have never been in more desperate need of good PR.

Although, to be fair, the bad press that bats are getting is not new. Western literature, in particular, has connected the bat to death, darkness and decay for centuries.

Homer's Odyssey compares dead souls adrift in the underworld to bats emerging from a cave. The three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth used the fur of a bat in their sinister brew. In Dante's Inferno, Satan himself is depicted as a bat with three heads.

Though not the final nail in their coffin, Bram Stoker's Dracula has had the most damning impact on bats.

In his most famous work, Stoker forever created a psychological link between the symbol of the bat and the idea of evil. His passage depicting a bat draining all the blood from a horse lingers in the minds of readers — despite the fact that vampire bats need only a teaspoon of blood a day, live in South America (not Transylvania) and feed mostly on birds.

This association with bats and the macabre continues today, with bats often prematurely being declared the culprit when a new disease emerges.

There are two different species of bats in Newfoundland: the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) and the northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis). ( Jordi Segers)

Ebola has been linked to bats by both the media and scientific journals; however, bat-to-human transmission has never been definitively proven.

The virus has been discovered in mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, as well as duikers (a small ungulate) — all of which could be the origin. Rabies is another example of bat-shaming.

We have a lot of unfounded fear when it comes to bats.- Tessa McBurney

While it is estimated that one in a hundred bats may carry rabies and anyone who comes into contact with a bat should get their rabies shot, the CDC reports that dogs are actually responsible for 99 per cent of human rabies deaths worldwide.

It's also the same with COVID-19. While bats are known carriers of other types of coronaviruses, the exact source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, has not been identified.

Despite the fact that the method of transmission has yet to be precisely pinpointed, public perception has pointed the finger at bats. This has led to rumours and fear, as well as the eviction and even slaughter of bat colonies.

This bat has white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has killed millions of bats across North America. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

'Every bat counts now'

Most bat species found in this province are already endangered. More specifically, there are two main bat species (the little brown myotis and the northern myotis) on the island, while Labrador also has hoary bats. A small number of these have been found in Newfoundland as well.

"Every bat counts right now," said Tessa McBurney, who works with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative as the Atlantic bat conservation project technician.

"With white-nose syndrome, loss of habitats, improper evictions, pesticides and the fact that these bat species are slow-reproducing mammals — most females just produce a single pup in a year — bat populations have plummeted."

Far from being menaces, bats are an incredibly valuable part of the ecosystem. McBurney points out that bats in other parts of the world are pollinators and seed spreaders, and are essential for our food supply.

"Bats are also used in health research. Scientists are now working with vampire bat saliva. There is a protein in the saliva that acts as an anticoagulant; it is highly effective for breaking up the blood clots that cause strokes," she said.

This hoary bat, one of three species found on Prince Edward Island and in Labrador, 'is echolocating and not growling,' notes Jordi Segers of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

Closer to home, McBurney explained how bats diminish our insect pests.

"They save American farmers billions each year by eating crop pests," she said.

"While we don't have exact numbers for Canada, we do know that bats make great neighbours for farms, and that they have an incredibly positive impact on agriculture."

Bats, McBurney stressed, are not the problem. While they can harbour viruses, many other species also carry viruses — including humans.

Conservationists also encourage 'bat boxes,' which are like birdhouses for bats.

"As humans, we need to take responsibility for the role we play when it comes to diseases that are newly emerging from wildlife populations. These viruses have likely existed in wildlife species for a long period of time, so we have to consider why we are now seeing what appears to be an increase in emerging diseases."

McBurney said that it's human behaviours that need to be re-examined.

"By destroying and repurposing wildlife habitat for our own gain, we are forcing wildlife to live more closely with people. The more close contact animals have with people, the greater chance there is for spread of disease. Instead of blaming wildlife, like bats, we should take a step back and examine the consequences of our own actions."

So what if you are existing in close quarters with a bat? Say you find one in an attic?

The species commonly found in buildings is the little brown myotis, and it is federally listed as endangered.

This is a little brown bat in Newfoundland. (Submitted by Jordi Segers)

McBurney wants to talk with ordinary people about bats, and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative even has a bat hotline: 1-833-434-BATS (2287).

"I can walk you through the process and suggest some options," she said.

"Ideally, people will be able to wait until fall to remove the bats. Summer is when pups are born and if mother bats are removed from a building at this time, the pups will be left behind to die as they are unable to fly."

Rumours about bat attacks and bats diving into human hair are false, by the way. "Those are just myths. We have a lot of unfounded fear when it comes to bats," McBurney said.

Here's what you can do

There are plenty of things you can do if you're interested in saving the bats. Planting late-day blooming flowers is a great way to attract moths, which bats love to eat.

They love to roost in decaying older trees and big oaks, so protecting these potential roosting sites can also help.

Conservationists also encourage "bat boxes," which are like birdhouses for bats.

"Bat boxes are one option for providing habitat. Newfoundland has a temperate climate, so you should paint your bat house black to allow for more heat absorption," she said.

Bats can appear frightening at first.

But keep in mind that the scariest thing would be a further decline in bat populations. We all depend on what they do.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Andie Bulman


Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's.