Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article was originally submitted as an email to the editor. On January 13, I explained the harm done by biased portrayal of bats. The editor promptly requested permission to publish my communication as an op-ed. We encourage our members to share it broadly. Nothing can threaten bats more than the fear and intolerance created by misleading disease stories.
Speculation linking bats to scary diseases has become lucrative, both in generating research grants and media readership. As historically documented, it can have devastating impact in fostering intolerance and even massive bat eradication. It also threatens the credibility of scientists and publishers and diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities.
Many authors and publishers of such counterproductive speculation are well intended, just misinformed. If kindly approached with sound documentation of the harm being done, they are appreciative and can be extremely helpful as we have repeatedly demonstrated.
Lena Sun’s article, “On a Bat’s Wing and a Prayer,” in the December 13, 2018 edition of The Washington Post, though well intended, contains misinformation that can threaten both conservation and public health. It leads with two false premises: bats are “some of the most dangerous animals in the world” and the rare Marburg virus is an important threat to world health. (1)
This basic discovery was covered by several news media, each with a slightly different slant. We responded to this one because it contained the worst misrepresentations. It was the only one seen that claimed bats to be “some of the most dangerous animals in the world” in addition to exaggerating the seriousness of its threat to world health.
Since its discovery in 1967, Marburg virus has caused a dozen outbreaks, killing fewer than 400 people. All the so-called “emerging diseases” speculated to be associated with bats worldwide, have killed fewer than 20,000 people in the past 40 years.
By comparison, HIV from chimpanzees has killed more than 39 million people,(2) yet these more popular animals consistently escape being labeled as dangerous. Among other viral killers in Africa, the World Health Organization reports more than 70,000 children die annually from vaccine-preventable roto virus infections.(3) It also warns of geometric growth in obesity, that according to the National Institutes of Health causes 300,000 preventable deaths annually in the U.S. alone.(4) And by extremely conservative estimate, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 23,000 Americans die annually from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.(5)
So why are we focusing limited public health resources disproportionately on the rarest threats? And why are rare risks from bats often exaggerated? The answers are simple. Bats are little known, widely feared, easy to sample, and have few defenders. Also, new viruses can be found wherever we look. These combined facts make bats uniquely vulnerable to a seemingly perfect storm. Speculation linking them to equally little known, but scary viruses has proven extremely lucrative in gaining unprecedentedly large grants and media readership, while diverting limited public health funds from far higher priorities.(6)(7)
Historically, bats have one of our planet’s finest track records of living safely with humans. Millions live in cities from America to Africa, Asia, and Australia, and have not caused even one of the world’s great pandemics. Diseases associated with bats are easily avoidable, mostly by simply not handling them.(7) Until more is known about Marburg, African caves where the virus may exist should be avoided.
For those visiting Africa, risks from mosquito-transmitted malaria or dog-transmitted rabies are orders of magnitude higher than those from any of the so-called “emerging,” but ancient, diseases speculated to be associated with bats. Our real fears should focus on preventing further loss of these already alarmingly declining, but ecologically and economically essential animals.(7)
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to The Washington Post editors and author to politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate exaggerated speculation that creates 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!
“Thank you so much for your concern, and for reading the bioGraphic story about Nipah virus. I really appreciate it. I assure you that I am a strong proponent of bats and the tremendously important ecological roles they play. I also think that bats are simply amazing creatures in their many forms and functions. (When you have time, please take a look at bioGraphic‘s other bat stories as evidence of that appreciation: Glimmers in the Dark, Battling Disease, Bat Ballet, and Agave Whisperers.)”
He went on to explain it is never his intention to vilify or advocate killing of bats and hopes he is being clear.
12/20/18 Merlin response
“I do not doubt your concern for bats or your good intentions. As I’ve commented, most of your article was just fine. My complaint lies in labeling bats to be the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals. Our background experiences are apparently strikingly different. Mine regarding the impact of public fear have been summarized recently. I’d be delighted to learn more about whatever experiences led you to your apparently differing concerns. However, I’d much prefer to simply share our perspectives over the phone.”
12/20/18 Steven Bedard response
“Thank you for your reply. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you. I first heard of your research when I was an undergrad studying zoology and ecology at Colorado State in the late 80’s, so it would be an honor to “meet” by phone.”
He further notes that he extensively interviewed disease experts and explains, “You will see in the article that I chose my words very carefully. I did not say that ‘bats are the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals.’ Humans hold that dubious distinction. What I wrote is that, ‘Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.’ That statement is most certainly true, according to my sources, as well as published research such as this Nature paper published in June 2017.
He also noted, “Some of your followers have expressed concern that if people in Bangladesh understand where the virus is coming from that they will begin to persecute bats.”
[Merlin’s thoughts—That is a serious misunderstanding. Scientists and conservationists have a responsibility to inform the public of disease sources, locations, and how to avoid them. We also must condemn sensational speculation and exaggeration, either of which can seriously harm both public health and bats.]
12/21/18 Merlin response
As per your suggestion, I’ve read your recent stories from bioGraphic and congratulate you on some very fine promotion of bat values. In fact, your “Glimmers in the Dark” article is the best I’ve seen on WNS. Given your clear concern for bats, I’m especially looking forward to speaking with you by phone when you return early in the New Year. When ready, simply suggest a time and phone number, and I’ll be happy to call.
We’ve likely had rather different experiences on the impact of exaggerated disease fears. Unlike you, I’ve had the misfortune of repeatedly seeing the results first hand.
During my early research in Tennessee, I met cave owners who burned many thousands of endangered gray bats by lighting kerosene in their roosts due to exaggerated rabies warnings. In Mexico, I took the attached photo of a few of the estimated 250,000 skeletons of insect-eating bats we found on reopening a roost where a fearful owner had sealed the bats inside. And, while photographing bats for my 2014 National Geographic article, I found a major bat cave recently sealed (with the bats inside) due to disease fears in a Cuban national park. In my experience, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. In fact, the free-tailed bat colony speculated to have been the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was burned in its roost.
Seeing how well intended you are, I hope you will read my 2017 report on fear-motivated bat killing and its impact on conservation. I am quite familiar with the Nature paper reporting that bats harbor a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than any other mammal group and look forward to discussing it with you.
[Note that Merlin has rebutted the aforementioned Nature article, read his response HERE.]
Original Response By Merlin Tuttle 12/19/18
Steven Bedard’s article, “The Reservoir,” in the December 12 issue of bioGraphic contains many important points, and the accompanying photography by A.M. Ahad is outstanding. Nevertheless, the subtitle is exaggerated speculation. The claim that a bat-borne virus in Bangladesh is poised to become the next pandemic is no more than a long-shot guess.
Neither historic precedent nor credible science support the statement that “Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.” Bats have an outstanding record of not transmitting disease to humans, though they are poorly understood and widely feared. They are the easiest mammals to quickly sample, so virus hunters disproportionately focus on bats, of course finding more viruses in them because that is where they are looking!
Unfortunately, speculating possible linkages between bats and rare, but scary viruses has created a perfect storm of grant-getting success and media coverage. Resulting biases can impede public health progress and lead to public intolerance of bats that are ecologically and economically essential. (1) (2)
Predicting the source of the next pandemic is extremely complicated, costly and risks the reputations of scientists who claim such ability. Funding priorities should focus on prompt surveillance,not prediction. (3)
Nipah, like other so-called “emerging viruses,” is ancient. As reported in Bedard’s article, it likely has been infecting humans for hundreds of years, unrecognized due to its rarity. Nevertheless, as the human population expands beyond sustainability, poverty, stress, and the conditions favorable to pandemics will make major outbreaks virtually inevitable, as stated. But it’s anybody’s guess where they will come from. Focusing too narrowly on bats may be impeding progress. Unsustainable growth in human populations is the real problem, one which few are willing to address.
Education regarding the risks of drinking raw palm juice is commendable. Perhaps the next step should be family planning. Nature has two remedies for overpopulation, pandemics and famine. Studies of rare diseases in bats will prevent neither.
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to bioGraphic editors and author to politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate exaggerated speculation that creates 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!
Anyll Markevich is a young man with a mission. He writes to Merlin, “I became interested in bats thanks to your book, The Secret Lives of Bats. It is one of my favorite books, and I have recommended it to more people than I can count! I have always known bats were cool, but not to the extent I discovered in your book. I want to be a wildlife biologist or ethologist when I grow up, so your book easily fascinated me.”
Anyll is far more than just interested. He’s also busily helping bats. He has written letters to editors in response to our Bat Flashes but wanted to do more. Using photos from our photo gallery, he designed his own bat brochures which he handed out to people at a local pedestrian mall. However, people were preoccupied with shopping and didn’t seem too interested.
He then emailed Merlin for advice on how to build bat houses that would best accommodate bat needs in the mountain climate of Colorado. He built nine, keeping one for himself, and sold seven to raise funds he donated to MTBC to help bats. But, being a very inventive 14-year-old, he passed his $100 gift through his father, who’s company matched his funds dollar for dollar through American Online Giving Foundation.
Lacking an ideal location for his bat house, he had to mount it a bit low, late in 2016. By the next summer, he found his first occupant. This year, Anyll and his mom noticed several bats flying around their yard for the first time. He checked his bat house and counted up to five. They’ve now left for winter, but he’s optimistic that he has the beginning of a colony. He’ll soon contact his customers, each of whom received instructions and one of his brochures. He’s hoping to hear of further success.
In his most recent communication, Anyll reported, “There is an exciting new development! Our local library (Boulder Public Library) wants me to build a four-chamber nursery bat house.” Furthermore, he got to meet professor Rick Adams, a well-known bat researcher and fellow conservationist from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. Rick will be consulting on placement of Anyll’s bat house, making Anyll very proud! His next objective is to convince the librarians to permit him to provide his brochures to interested library users.
Malay Mail published another supporting article, Weighing in on bats and durians, which boasts over 3 million unique visitors not including the printed version.
The Rimba news release emphasizes the serious impact of deforestation-driven durian expansion to all relevant parties. They call on the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, the Department of Agriculture, the wider durian industry, and individual durian farmers to “think long-term and pursue good agricultural practices for growing durian that is sustainable, contributes to healthy ecosystems, and provides a future for the Malaysian durian industry and Malaysian durian lovers.”
The overall objective of their plan is to promote coordinated action worldwide to safeguard wild and managed pollinators and promote the sustainable use of pollination services, which are vital to both ecosystems and agriculture. We are delighted to see Rimba’s efforts on behalf of bats and the economies they support getting this well deserved attention. Let’s use our voices to amplify the message!
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to The Star and Malay Mail editors to thank them for sharing this important reporting in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I greatly appreciate your support of bats and protection of sustainable durian production.” 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!
The 48th Annual North American Symposium on Bat Research conference was held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico October 24-27. Hurricane Willa threatened but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of attendees who ended up enjoying perfect weather in a beautiful location. Our hosts Jorge Ortega and Rodrigo Medellin did a great job, and we were very favorably impressed with the outstanding conservation orientation of Mexican colleagues. Mexico’s students had an unusual opportunity to present their projects, ranging from bat pest control in walnut orchards to seed dispersal and the pollination of agaves from which all tequila is derived. Additional areas of conservation interest involved impacts of wind turbines, management of white-nose syndrome, and protection of roosts.
Many attendees were delighted to see Merlin and meet Teresa and share insights on the needs of bats. Based on his 60 years of field experience, Merlin has become increasingly concerned to see so many of today’s remaining bats living in marginal, sometimes barely survivable conditions, especially in caves. These unfortunate circumstances easily can be misinterpreted as what bats need, leading to inappropriate conservation measures. He was encouraged to see rapidly growing awareness of the futility of stopping or curing white-nose syndrome, with increasing focus on protection of survivors from disturbance at roosts. Where bats were protected from disturbance, signs of stabilization and recovery were reported.
For the past 18 months Merlin has been assisting Harrison Broadhurst and Christopher Rannefors in creating a line of designer bat houses, attractive to both home owners and bats. Their curving architecture isn’t, just pleasing to the eye. At least theoretically, it may increase the area available for roosting, since most bats appear to prefer to line up with faces exposed to the outside air, not to another’s posterior, quite understandable!
The new houses are constructed of kiln-dried, sustainably sourced, three-quarter-inch western red cedar, with each piece dovetailed and caulked, thus minimizing leakage. Roosting chambers are extra tall (20-26 inches) and vented to ensure thermal gradients preferred by bats. All landing and roosting surfaces provide one-eighth-inch-deep cross cuts at half-inch intervals, ensuring maximum footholds for young bats. By avoiding plywood, the possibility of early deterioration and potential off-gassing are finally eliminated. Furthermore, treatment with Thompson’s WaterSeal Semi Transparent Stain & Sealer will additionally protect against warping. BatBnBs come with complete instructions and are easy to mount.
We’re proud to be a part of Harrison and Chris’ efforts on behalf of bats and a safer environment. They’ve been featured in dozens of leading publications and have even appeared on several television shows. You can learn more about them and obtain your own BatBnB by visiting their online shop. By using the code MERLIN when ordering you will be given a 10% discount, and the company will donate to MTBC an additional 5% of all orders using this code. Feel free to share this discount and BatBnB’s website with friends and let us know about your progress. By purchasing a BatBnB, you can reduce the threat of harmful pesticides in your neighborhood and help MTBC educate the world about these invaluable neighbors.
In early August, we accepted a partnership invitation to develop a series of bat conservation and management training videos. Though growing numbers of biologists are studying bats, few have the breadth of experience essential to meet their widely varying conservation needs. Each species has unique requirements. In order to better share my nearly 60 years of personal experience, John Chenger founder of Bat Conservation and Management, and Janet Tyburec founder of Bat Survey Solutions, invited me to collaborate. They are providing video shooting and editing, featuring my narration and illustrations.
Four programs are now being edited. The first, tentatively titled “Win Friends, not Battles,” explains key approaches that have most effectively won long-term cooperation. The second features the worldwide importance of bats. The third addresses greatly exaggerated disease claims, and the fourth deals with assessing cave suitability for bats and special long-term management needs.
Under John’s guidance, we began field shooting on August 15, greatly aided by Teresa Nichta and John’s associate, Julie Zeyzus. For the next 10 days there was little time for sleep or even eating. On my birthday, we spent seven hours filming underground, a great antidote for thinking of getting old!
Illustrating the need for such education, one of the caves we visited in a protected nature reserve, had lost its entire colony of tens of thousands of cave myotis when fire protection permitted entrance blockage by vegetation. Another cave, also well protected by its owner, had overgrowth of an invasive, introduced plant that could have prevented restoration of a formerly large colony. It only took minutes to eliminate the threat.
Every year around this time there is a spike in needlessly sensational rabies stories featuring exaggerations of truth. We always encourage others to respond politely to editors, authors, decision makers and media personnel when they see these. Editors’ jobs depend on readership and they do aim to please. They just need to know you like or dislike an article. Responses can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate sensational headlines or speculation that creates needless fear of bats.”
We work hard to be a source for your personal ambassadorship of bats and wish we could respond to every article, however our resources are limited. We cannot do it alone. We hope that this post will supplement your future responses when you encounter false or exaggerated bat publicity.
Unfortunately, this well intended story is a sensational exaggeration of truth. It is correct to say that most human rabies in America comes from bats. However, put in context, it’s just 1-2 cases per year, making it one of the rarest causes of death. By comparison, just by riding one mile in a motorized vehicle, an American exceeds his/her annual risk of rabies from any source.
Because even sick bats almost never bite, except in self-defense if handled, the risk of contracting any disease from one is exceedingly low for anyone who simply leaves them alone. In Austin, Texas, thousands of people gather nightly to observe the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats close-up. And in decades of this exceptionally close association, no one has been attacked or contracted a disease.
Post-exposure rabies vaccinations in the United States are outrageously overpriced, currently costing from $10,000 to $22,000 per person treated. With huge profits at stake, and our CDC heavily influenced by drug companies, promotion of exaggerated fear is not surprising. Unprovoked bites are exceedingly rare, so much so that I have yet to experience one despite close association with millions of bats worldwide for more nearly 60 years.
Human rabies cases are often diagnosed post-mortem or after the patient is incoherent. Even in cases in which parents or friends report bites, the U.S. CDC reports “no bite history” unless the patient is able to confirm. Consequently, human cases, regardless of animal origin (i.e. bat, dog, skunk or raccoon) often get reported as having no bite history. Huge misrepresentation occurs when such reports are used to disproportionately frighten people of bats.
Since 1996 the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has advised consideration of post-exposure prophylaxis for “persons potentially exposed to bats even where a history of physical contact cannot be elicited,” unless prompt diagnosis excluded rabies. Based on its independent analysis Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization, opted not to follow CDC’s recommended bat policy. They do not advise vaccination unless there has been direct contact. For detailed documentation, see Rabies in Perspective.
Building bat roosts into highway bridges in farmlands can benefit farmers at little or no cost to taxpayers. Mark Bloschock, a supervising bridge design engineer at the Texas Department of Transportation, discovered the potential for bridges to help bats when he worked on Austin’s now famous Congress Avenue Bridge. As hundreds of thousands of bats unexpectedly moved in, he contacted me for advice. He soon discovered that, by simply making small adjustments in the spacing between box beams, large numbers of bats could be attracted where needed, and where they weren’t wanted, they could be discouraged by simply changing the spacing.
In 1998, when highway US 90 required two new bridges over Seco Creek, near D’Hanis, Texas, he wrote specifications that placed the box beams three quarters to 1.5 inches apart, hoping to attract Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) to this important agricultural area. The bats quickly moved in and soon exceeded half a million, today as many as two million.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.