Bat Flash! New York Times Misrepresents Rabies Facts


Merlin Tuttle’s Response

For at least the second time this year, The New York Times has published facts involving bats and disease in a misleading manner. At a time when bats are in special need of conservation, scary speculation is extremely counterproductive. In February of this year, we issued a Bat Flash, and members contacted Times authors and editors to caution them about the negative impact of premature disease speculation.

Now bats need you to speak up again. On June 14, 2019, I responded with the following communication to The New York Times Editor:

I read with interest the recent article, “Bats, Not Dogs, Are the Most Common Source of Rabies,” by James Gorman. As a biologist who has studied and photographed hundreds of species of bats worldwide, I have personally documented instances in which thousands, even millions of bats have been burned in their caves due to misleading warnings that incite needless fear. In fact, fear of bats is often the single greatest impediment to their conservation.

I’m deeply concerned because bats are essential to whole economies and ecosystems upon which we, ourselves, depend. Their loss threatens our future, far more than any possible disease transmission. Education regarding the benefits of conserving bats is urgently needed.

Millions of people have safely viewed the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, TX. No one has ever been attacked or contracted a disease from these close-up observations.

For anyone who just doesn’t handle bats, the risk of contracting a disease from one is very close to zero. Where I live in Austin, Texas, millions of people have safely observed 1.5 million bats close-up as they emerge from our now famous Congress Avenue Bridge. And in decades not a single person has been attacked or contracted a disease. We simply warn visitors not to handle the bats. If indeed undetected bites are more than exceedingly rare, certainly they would have been detected in Austin. In sixty years of studying bats, sometimes surrounded by millions in caves, I have still never seen an aggressive bat.

Gorman’s article is based on the CDC’s June 12 press release which presented decades-old knowledge as though it was an important new discovery. If truly concerned about human fatality sources, the CDC might have warned that 36 Americans were killed in dog attacks in 2018 alone, including 20 already this year. However, that in itself would have been a misdirected focus in a country where many thousands are dying annually from obesity, prescription drug overdoses, and drug-resistant microbes.

Against today’s backdrop of American mortality threats, how can we justify warnings of extremely rare and easily avoided bat risks as newsworthy?

The press release does belatedly note that bats are valuable and shouldn’t be killed. However, in reality, people seldom tolerate, and often kill animals they fear. Despite their well demonstrated values, bats already rank among America’s most rapidly declining wildlife.


Our combined voices can make a difference. This is the second instance this year The New York Times has misleadingly presented facts about bats. We urge you to choose any or all means of contact to reach out to Times editors and authors to politely share your opinion in your own words. You may find our Rabies in Perspective resource helpful in composing your reply. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate misleading presentation of facts that create needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!