Rabid or not, bats acting ‘really weird’ this summer

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The number of troublesome bats seems to be on the rise across the state, and for animal control expert Rich Burton, it’s like life in a horror movie.

“I’m seeing some really weird stuff this year,” said Burton. The animal control officer for Livermore and Canton, he also operates Maine Animal Damage Control in Lewiston. “Bats are not acting like they normally do. People are making a lot of mistakes.”

Those mistakes can be either deadly or expensive: With the height of rabies season just beginning, animal experts say the correct handling of troublesome bats has never been so crucial.

Plenty of victims can attest to this.

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In Portland on Sunday, according to Burton, a woman woke up at 3 a.m. with a bat crawling across her forehead. In a panic, she rolled to her boyfriend and asked him what was on her.

“He told her it was a bug; to not worry about it and go back to sleep,” Burton said. “The bat crawled off her forehead onto her pillow. She rolled over on it and the bat ended up basically chewing on her neck. She woke up in the morning and found the bat on the floor.”

Burton was called to Portland. He recovered the bat — ensuring that it was dead — and sent the animal to be tested at a laboratory. Within 24 hours, the woman got a call from the Maine Center for Disease Control. The bat had tested positive for rabies, meaning she would have to go through a series of expensive shots. 

“That’s bad enough,” Burton said, “but she’s also six months pregnant. There’s really no case study on how the rabies series is going to affect the fetus, or whether it’s going to add any protection for the fetus. I know she’s been in contact with a lot of doctors over the past couple of days. She’s quite scared and I don’t blame her.”

In Old Orchard Beach, Burton said, a family of 13 was staying at a cottage on the ocean. In the middle of the night Sunday, their vacation was interrupted by a bat that flew into the house. Knowing that they might have been exposed to rabies, the woman in charge there called for an animal control officer, who took the bat with the intention of sending it off for testing.

Just one problem.

“A lot of ACOs don’t have much experience with bats,” Burton said.

The officer who collected the bat in Old Orchard placed it, alive, in a carrier with slotted sides before putting it into his trunk.

“Bats can get through a hole the size of a pencil,” Burton said. Which is exactly what happened. When the animal control officer opened his trunk, the bat flew out and vanished. It was bad news for the woman who had rented the cottage: With no animal to be tested for rabies, everybody staying inside the house would have to undergo the rabies series as a precaution.

“She calls me Monday morning, crying,” Burton said. “I had to deliver the news to her: You need to see a doctor. You and everybody down there are going to have to go through the rabies series.”

The cost of the rabies series can rise as high as $18,000. For this woman and her dozen guests, the math adds up quickly.

“You’re looking at in excess of $100,000 for everybody to be vaccinated,” Burton said.

In Rockland, a woman woke up to discover a bat biting her neck. When an animal control officer arrived, the bat attacked him, too.

In Lewiston, a 4-year-old was exposed when he stepped on a bat in his yard. That bat later tested negative for rabies.

In Weld, a 3-year-old was exposed when he found a bat in his bathtub. That boy escaped the rabies series, Burton said, because his mother did the right thing.

“She was smart,” Burton said. “She took a plunger and stuck it over the bat and called for help.”

That bat also tested negative, which is the best possible outcome for those involved because it means no rabies series will be necessary. The problem, Burton said, is that most people get so freaked out by the winged creatures that their first instinct is to shoo them away. 

Not a good idea, according to Burton.

Whenever possible to safely do so, he said, a bat should be contained — to a room or to a sealed container — until an animal expert arrives. That advice also applies to landlords, Burton said, who are frequently called by tenants to get rid of bats inside apartments. It’s an issue he has seen a lot lately, particularly in the city.

“I get a lot of calls from people in downtown Lewiston,” Burton said, “especially when you get down in the apartments along the river. The landlords are always the ones who go down and will either throw the bat outside or kill it and throw it away.”

If there’s a chance a bat has had contact with people, Burton stressed, it needs to be tested for rabies. The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention has a “How to Capture a Bat” section on its website.

Burton estimated he’s getting four or five reports of potentially rabid animals, mostly bats, each day. Last year, he had four or five calls of that nature all year. One of his counterparts in Rangeley reported fielding up to a dozen calls a day.

That’s a lot of potential rabies going around Vacationland.

The rabies virus is carried in an animal’s saliva and neural tissue, which means it can be transmitted through a bite or a scratch. Rabies affects the brain and spinal cord and is almost always fatal after symptoms of the disease develop. 

“Once you become symptomatic, there is no cure,” he said. “You’re done.”

Humans bitten by an infected animal are given a series of injections to fight the virus before symptoms appear.

At the Maine CDC, rabies statistics are still being compiled for 2015. In 2014, four bats tested positive for rabies. In 2015, five bats have tested positive and the period that is typically the worst for rabies is just beginning — in middle to late August, young bats are just leaving their maternity sites and flying off into the world.

“Typically, we get about five rabid bat cases per year,” said John Martins, public health information officer at the Maine CDC.

On Wednesday, Burton was in Kennebunkport, dealing with another group of people who are facing a series of rabies shots. He’d rather not see any more cases as summer winds down.

As far as he’s concerned, knowledge is power. While many people associate rabies with raccoons, skunks, foxes and Hollywood movie dogs, Burton advises that the lowly bat can be more than just a nuisance. It’s something that people tend to find out the hard way.

“There are going to be a ton of people who need to go through the series because they don’t realize that the bat is a prime rabies carrier,” Burton said.

With all that said, wildlife officials — and Burton is one of them — point out that for all the fretting and screeching over bats, it’s easy to forget the many good things they do — and that the vast majority of bats don’t carry rabies.

Only one bat in 20,000 carries the disease, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

And an average brown bat can gobble 3,000 bugs in one night. That’s 3,000 bugs that won’t be buzzing around you or your friends as you try to enjoy the last days of summer.

“People also think bats only eat mosquitoes, which is very wrong,” said wildlife rehabilitator Jen Des Lewis of Auburn. “They eat a ton a various pesky insects like gnats, June bugs, Japanese beetles, corn worms, moths. Lots of bugs that destroy trees and gardens and farm crops get eaten by bats.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that in excess of 7 million bats have died in recent years as a result of “white-nose syndrome,” a mysterious white fungus that appears around their muzzles and has wiped out entire hibernating colonies. In Maine, bat populations dropped by more than 90 percent in one year at two of three known hibernating colonies.

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention guide on capturing bats:

If it is suspected that a bat had close contact with a person, the bat should be captured for rabies testing. Contact a local animal control officer, game warden or pest management company for assistance. The following technique should be followed to safely capture a bat without damaging its head, as this could prevent rabies testing from being performed:

• Use caution and avoid direct contact with the bat; wear leather gloves if possible;

• Wait until it lands, and then cover it with a small box, coffee can, or other container;

• Slip a piece of cardboard under the container, thus trapping the bat;

• Secure the bat by taping the cardboard tightly to the container;

• Wash your hands with soap and water; and

• Call your local animal control officer, game warden or pest management personnel to assist in arranging for rabies testing at the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab (www.mainepublichealth.gov/lab).

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention has extensive information regarding potentially rabid bats and other animals, including a Bats and Rabies Guide. Learn more at www.maine.gov.

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