Although often portrayed menacing and evil in many films and books, bats play a crucial role in the New England ecosystem. They are a key predator of many insects and moths throughout the region, and they serve as a food source for many other airborne predators like owls and hawks. Some of the most common bat species in New England are Little Brown and Big Brown bats, according to Wellesley Animal Control officer Sue Webb.
The prevalence of these flying mammals is on the line, however. For example, listed as an endangered species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England Field Office, the Indiana bat is among many bat species threatened by the pervasive White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). The fungal killer, characterized by a white fungus forming on the muzzle or wings of a bat, is responsible for the deaths of 5.7 to 6.7 million bats to date. It is estimated to have spread to more than 115 caves and mines throughout the Northeast.
Luckily, there are ways that the average New England resident can help. Naturally, the easiest way to extend the lives of bats and expand their population is by not killing them, even when caught within the home. One can also construct a bat box for a family to live in, an example of which can be seen nearby the parking lot at Morses Pond, where Eagle Scout John Luby constructed multiple boxes and set them up in conjunction with the Natural Resources Commission.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has also issued a moratorium on any caving activities in the caves and mines affected by WNS. They also require that any equipment or clothing used in any of these areas be decontaminated before use elsewhere.
But there is are also risks associated with bats. Many species will live and nest behind shutters or in chimneys and attics, and may enter someone’s home through a crack in search of food or room for flight. This most frequently occurs in late summer. Needless to say, bats, as mammals, can carry rabies, which can be transmitted via a bite or scratch from their saliva-covered claws.
If a bat is observed inside the home, the first necessary step is to address the possibility of its having come in contact with a person or pet in the room. Often times bites or scratch marks aren’t visible and young children or people with diminished mental capabilities will be unable to remember if they were touched by the bat. Similarly, if someone wakes up and sees a bat in the same room, they should not rule out the possibility of having been bitten.
If it is possible the bat came in contact with a person or animal, it should be caught using a sealable container and kept cool (but not frozen) until it can be sent to the Department of Public Health (DPH) for rabies testing. While only five percent of caught specimens are tested positive for rabies, there is no way of determining if a bat is rabid without proper examination of its brain. If the bat is tested positive for rabies, then the state and/or local boards of health will contact the affected person to determine who could have been exposed and the proper vaccinations to address the infection. Even if a pet has had regular shots for rabies, it will also need a booster shot in the event that it is bitten by a rabid bat. If the bat cannot be caught for testing, one should assume that it is positive for rabies and contact their doctor.
On the other hand, if the bat is certain not to have come in contact with any person or animal, it can be caught using gloves and a cereal box or cup to be carried outside, as well as simply forcing it out a window by closing all other doors into the room.
If a person is unsure of what to do in interactions with a bat and whether capture and testing or vaccinations are necessary, they can contact the DPH Division of Epidemiology and Immunizations at their 24/7 phone number: 617-983-6800.
(Matthew Hornung and Olivia Gieger)