COVID Restrictions: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

Merlin Tuttle and Danielle Cordani

10/30/21

Many who work with bats have been impacted by efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from humans. We circulated the following opinion survey to better understand their views. Survey objectivity is notoriously difficult to achieve, but we have attempted to cover the full range of opinions provided.

 

Methods and Limitations

We digitally distributed our survey globally, on March 17, 2021. Through today, we have received 96 responses from professional bat workers in 29 U.S. states and 13 additional countries. Seventy-five percent of respondents were biologists involved in bat research or management, and 25% were bat rehabilitators and educators who interact with the public. Occupational differences resulted in the removal of “Not Applicable” responses. Confidentiality was promised, but some reportedly abstained for fear of negative impacts from reviewers of permits or grants. Quoted respondents gave permission. Results are limited to those who chose to report and by the completeness of their reports.

Frequency and distribution of responses worldwide.
Frequency and distribution of responses by U.S. state.

Reported Restrictions 

Most countries are attempting to follow IUCN guidelines, but interpretations vary widely. Some require no restrictions, while others prohibit any bat work that includes close association with bats. In practice, reported restrictions often mean a complete cessation of research, training workshops, and/or rehabilitation.

 

Opinions 

  • 66% reported negative effects on their research, 32% very negative.
  • 67% reported negative effects on conservation, 30% very negative.
  • 65% reported negative effects on the perception of bats, 37% very negative.
  • 54% reported increased difficulty in obtaining research or education permits.
  • 61% reported decreased data collection.
  • 76% reported reduced training workshop opportunities. 
  • 72% reported reduced public education.
  • 88% reported increased mixed messaging to the public.
  • 65% reported increased public fear of bats.
  • 51% reported increased bat eradication attempts.
  • 85% believed that restrictions are less than fully effective, 15% very effective.

Comments From Responders

Responders from several U.S. states reported increased intolerance of bats roosting in buildings, and some even cited euthanization of non-listed species accidentally captured during field studies. We found a wide range of opinions over the effectiveness of current restrictions, but most expressed confidence in the potential for safely returning to work. 

 

There was also widespread frustration with inconsistent interpretations of what are “essential” versus “non-essential” activities and restrictions preventing work with non-listed species. Modifications to IUCN guidelines were announced on July 2, 2021. They included new instructions on assessing risk, clearly attempting to facilitate a return to work. Nevertheless, responders continued to report problems with government agencies due to subjective, often overly conservative, permitting decisions that hamper progress.

 

Interpreting Results

Survey responses revealed several unintended consequences of restrictions. Respondents reported a sharp decrease in conservation-relevant research, public education, and key training workshops for professionals, at a time when they are most needed. North Americans reported the most stringently enforced restrictions – in part due to continued enforcement of failed efforts to stop the advance of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (WNS). The following quotes are representative of the most frequently written responses.

 

“With the potential listing of bat species due to the impact of WNS, biologists in the state are falling behind on inventory and monitoring. This will negatively impact the baseline data available if/when species are added to the ESA [Endangered Species Act]. Large scale bat capture efforts, including training and workshops, within Nevada have been cancelled for 2020 and 2021.”

Anonymous, Wildlife Biologist, NV, USA

 

“I’ve observed the following: (1) increased use of acoustics as a sole survey method to document bat presence, when for many species identification can only be done with a bat in the hand; (2) decreased hands-on training opportunities needed for furthering on-going bat survey objectives; and (3) increased animosity towards permitting agencies and departments of health due to their seemingly capricious decisions that single-out researchers and educators as possible vectors of COVID transmission to bats while ignoring the more expansive numbers of the general public who interact with bats on a daily basis.”

Janet Tyburec, Workshop Trainer & Environmental Consultant, AZ, USA

 

Eighty-five percent of respondents doubted that restrictions on professional bat workers could be fully effective in preventing COVID exposures from humans to bats. However, a wide range of opinions were reported. 

 

“I would like to see a reinstatement of all permits for research, inventory, and monitoring activities. While I personally don’t think it is necessary, I would be amenable to adding additional levels of PPE, such as masks and vaccinations, if it meant being able to resume bat work.”

Anonymous, Government Agency, USA

 

“Handling by vaccinated people with sensible restrictions, such as masks, gloves, and avoiding bat work when sick, should be required. If these conditions are met, bat handling should not be restricted.”

Bryan Hamilton, Government Agency, CA, USA

 

“Now we have one set of rules for researchers (the ones likely to take all precautions) and no rules for the public. It makes no sense.”

Todd Stefanic, Government Agency, ID, USA

 

An unprecedented resurgence of public intolerance of bats was reported. Some U.S. states were even identified as requiring extermination of bat colonies living in buildings. Historically, people who fear bats have killed thousands, even millions, in single incidents.1,2 Seventy-one percent of respondents shared concerns regarding the impact of mixed messaging as a threat to bat conservation. Visual images of researchers donning full PPE when approaching bats risk reversing decades of educational progress in overcoming irrational fear of bats as vectors for disease.

 

“Handling bats with PPE in front of local communities, even if meant to protect the bat, can trigger fear and misconceptions of bats.”

Natalie Weber, Wildlife Biologist, Germany

 

A recent survey conducted by Tigga Kingston examined community perceptions of bats since COVID-19. The results revealed strikingly similar themes. Participants from across 39 countries overwhelmingly cited “Fieldwork and Monitoring Restrictions” as the greatest negative impacts, closely followed by “Misinformation” and “Persecution [of bats]”.Fear of bats was reported to be growing, despite increased efforts to combat negative messaging and misinformation. Participants submitted no solutions on how to address persecution, clearly highlighting the need to put fears in perspective.

 

In our opinion, bats will continue to suffer from growing public fear for as long as they are defended, only because they are essential, while still being presented as uniquely dangerous sources of disease. When communicating with the general public, special efforts should be made to minimize any implication of bats being dangerous sources of disease and to clarify that PPE is needed to protect against human transmission of COVID-19.

 

Questions to Consider

1.      Can we prevent transmission of COVID to wildlife?

Humans appear able to transmit COVID to a wide variety of other mammals, from mice to deer, and even domestic cats and livestock, with little harm.4,5 COVID antibodies were recently discovered in 40% of white-tailed deer across four U.S. states. As with other non-primate mammals, they showed few, if any, signs of illness, and may already be spreading it to other species.6 Hunters were simply advised to follow normal procedures for safe processing and were quickly reassured that “Based on the available information, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low.”7

 

In sharp contrast, we are often warned of grave risks of COVID transmission either to or from bats. The apparent bias is reminiscent of rabies warnings that focused disproportionately on bats in the 1970s and 80s, making bat conservation nearly impossible.1,2

 

2.         Why are COVID restrictions uniquely focused on bat workers when rapid spread among other wildlife already appears to be beyond our control?

We can’t control the public’s interactions with bats. Thousands of people worldwide encounter bats that enter their homes, and additional thousands contact them while exploring caves. Countless more hunt bats for food or medicinal use.1 Most are not even aware of restrictions applied to professional bat workers. Their numbers dwarf those of professional bat workers. This raises another important question:

 

3.         Can wildlife exposure to COVID be prevented, and is the apparently low potential for success worth the cost?

References

  1. Tuttle, M. D. Threats to bats and educational challenges in Bat Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation 363–391 (2013). doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-7397-8_18.
  2. Tuttle, M. D. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation 10, (2017).
  3. Rutrough, A., Kingston, T. & Tsang, S. M. Scientific perceptions of bat conservation and COVID-19: Insights from the International Berlin Bat Meeting 2021. GBatNet https://gbatnet.blogspot.com/2021/10/scientific-perceptions-of-bat.html (2021).
  4. Cohen, J. The hunt for SARS-CoV-2’s ancestors heats up. Science 373, 1076–1077 (2021).
  5. Fagre, A. et al. SARS-CoV-2 infection, neuropathogenesis and transmission among deer mice: Implications for spillback to New World rodents. PLOS Pathogens 17, e1009585 (2021).
  6. Chandler, J. C. et al. SARS-CoV-2 exposure in wild white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). bioRxiv 2021.07.29.454326 (2021) doi:10.1101/2021.07.29.454326.
  7. Murray, J. White-tailed deer can get COVID. Here’s what hunters need to know. Press Connects https://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/local/2021/09/28/white-tail-deer-covid-positive-new-york-hunters-safely-eat-meat/5815817001/ (2021).

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A Cool Story of Bats Educating People

By Merlin Tuttle
7/9/21

Inner Space Cavern, located in Georgetown, Texas, has become a bat education center thanks to cooperative tricolored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) and tour guides who love them. More than 300,000 visitors a year will have a close-up encounter with bats during their guided tour.

 

Tricolored bats can be seen year-round, often roosting within a few feet of passing visitors. Assistant Manager, Patty Perlaky, commented, “I think one of the most exciting things for people, especially the children, is to see a live bat in real life, not on TV.”

 

The cave itself has a long and fascinating history. Approximately 13,000 to 32,000 years ago it had up to five entrances, some quite large. Ancient bones and carbon dating reveal the cave was visited by saber-toothed cats, jaguars, ground sloths, spectacled bears, dire wolves, camels, and even an occasional mammoth.

Tricolored bats range from Mexico to Canada in eastern North America and are tiny, weighing just more than a U.S. quarter.
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Hope for Pennsylvania’s Bats – Cal Butchkoski’s Legacy

By Merlin Tuttle
6/18/21

Calvin Butchkoski wasn’t privileged to attend graduate school. In fact, he never even took a course in bat biology while earning an associate degree in wildlife technology at Penn State. Yet, he became his state’s all-time leader in bat conservation. His amazing career is a testament to the power of following one’s passion while caring for both bats and humans.

 

Unable to find employment as a biologist, he served in the Marine Corps for three years after college. Finally, in 1982, he was hired as a biology technician by the Pennsylvania Game Commission where he assisted in studies of wild turkeys, bears, and even packrats for two years. He didn’t discover his true passion until assigned to work with bat expert, Dr. John Hall.

Despite a late start and lack of formal training, mostly self-taught, Cal quickly became one of America’s foremost bat conservationists. In fact, he led Pennsylvania to become a national model. His achievements include key bat house discoveries, the establishment of America’s first citizen science bat counts, protection for the state’s most important hibernation sites in caves and mines, special training for hundreds of state and federal employees, and highly successful public education campaigns.

 

Cal led early research on the most appropriate bat house designs for Pennsylvania and helped homeowners solve nuisance problems caused by too many bats attempting to live in walls and attics. His bat house alternatives saved thousands of bats from extermination. And homeowners often became citizen scientists volunteering their help with annual emergence counts.

Cal enjoying the company of an inquisitive packrat. He is a natural-born animal lover and outdoorsman who cares about all wildlife.
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Severe Weather Takes Heavy Toll in Texas

By Merlin Tuttle
3/2/21

Given overall warming trends, we weren’t surprised to see some 70 to 80° F days in January and February of 2021. But that hardly tells the full story!

Beginning on February 10th, historically low temperatures were recorded across Texas. For eight consecutive days (February 10–18), the temperature hovered between 37° and 9° F with six inches of snow on the ground in Austin, Texas. The first reasonable feeding opportunity for bats likely didn’t occur before the 21st.

The last similar event occurred 32 years ago in 1989. In a 9-day period (December 16–24) the daily temperature ranged from 51 to 4° F but remained below freezing for only two days versus seven in 2021. Fewer people were concerned in those days, but at least hundreds of killed bats were reported.

Brazilian free-tailed bats about to emerge from their day roost in a bridge crevice in Austin, Texas.
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Counting Free-tailed Bats in Bridges

9/10/18
By Merlin Tuttle

Merlin inspects Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) moments after removing them from their bridge crevice roost for counting.

For many years we’ve wondered just how many Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) could cram into a single 18-inch-deep bridge crevice. Accurate counts of large colonies are difficult no matter how they’re made. However, when estimating bridge colonies, it would help if we knew the number, using an average horizontal foot of crevice.

The solution seemed easy. Two years ago, Glen Novinger, an MTBC member and I, inserted two, three-quarter-inch-thick wooden frames, each encompassing a square foot of interior space, into bridge crevices of the same width while the bats were out feeding. The idea was to later slowly remove them, forcing those roosting inside to exit into a cloth-lined bag from which we would count them.

However, the bats were full of surprises. The first night we waited patiently till half an hour after we’d seen the last ones leave—or at least that was what we thought! But when we approached to install our devices, roughly half remained inside. I couldn’t help but wonder how many emergence counts had missed those that, for whatever their reasons, didn’t emerge at sundown. (more…)

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Response to Sensational Bat Rabies Stories

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.

 

Response to Beth Skwarecki’s story “If a Bat Was in your Bedroom, You Probably Need a Rabies Shot
By Merlin Tuttle
9/1/18

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.

Millions of tourists have watched free-tailed bat emergences from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas over the past 35 years without anyone ever having been harmed.

 

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Our Premiere Member Cruise

At Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation we’re overjoyed to finally launch our membership campaign. Members at the Leadership level or above were given priority invitations to view the famous Congress Avenue Bridge bat emergence with Merlin aboard a chartered Capital Cruises boat. We all gathered at the Hyatt Hotel’s lounge for drinks (and queso) and to meet and get acquainted. The first member to sign up for the cruise was Janell Cannon, the author of the classic children’s book Stellaluna.  Janell graciously signed copies of her book, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary!

Janell Cannon signed Stellaluna for members on the bat cruise. Ingrid Dehn, retired school teacher, had loved reading Stellaluna countless times to her students. The book is celebrating its 25th anniversary!
Bat Slide Scan Project team interns Renee Cornue and Max Gorman with supervisor Teresa Nichta (middle) enjoyed meeting participants on the cruise.

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Texas Department of Transportation Celebrates Bats

8/28/18
By Merlin Tuttle

 

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has set world records when it comes to helping bats, and that special help is paying big dividends for Texans and for countless visitors. Thanks to the enthusiastic early leadership of Supervising Bridge Engineer, Mark Bloschock and the continuing efforts of Stirling Robertson, now in charge of Strategic Projects, and John Young, an Environmental Specialist, TxDOT is taking great pride in its accomplishments.

On August 21, Stirling and John organized a special bat evening for 30 of TxDOT’s most important media and public information officers. They each received a copy of Department’s new guide to bat watching at state bridges, attended my 20-minute presentation at TxDOT headquarters, then joined me for a special Congress Avenue Bridge bat watching evening. We were delighted when we learned that Mark, who is now retired, would be able to join us.

Merlin speaking to TxDOT media and public relations staff.
Merlin entertaining TxDOT staff with bat facts while waiting for Congress Ave Bridge bats to emerge.

The bats performed beautifully, and Stirling reported, “There has been overwhelming positive response to your talk and the whole event. Good stuff!” A big thank you to Stirling for making this event possible! We look forward to future collaboration and many more bats in Texas bridges.

 

 

Emerging bats providing America’s most famous urban wildlife spectacle.

 

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Panel Discussion on Vampire Control

Wildlife Disease Association
St. Augustine, Florida
8/10/18
By Merlin Tuttle

The Wildlife Disease Association hosted a panel discussion on vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus), their impact, status, and changing distribution on August 5, 2018. A panel of six speakers from Europe, Mexico, and the U.S. were invited to speak. In the lead-off, tone-setting presentation,

Veterinarian and vampire control officer for Costa Rica, Dr. Hugo Sancho treating vampire bites with a mixture of Vaseline and warfarin to kill vampires that return to feed at the same wounds night after night. This kills only those that are causing problems.

I outlined the global value of bats, with special emphasis on Latin America, then proceeded to discuss my decades of observations on vampire control and the enormous damage done when beneficial species are inadvertently targeted. I favored control limited to the vampires causing problems. However, I emphasized that vampire problems are two-fold. One of course involves feeding on livestock and occasionally humans. The other involves their potential impact in crowding other species out of already declining roosting options. The dramatic expansion of vampire populations due to livestock introduction is likely impacting many other bat species that are essential to healthy ecosystems.

Yanomamo Indians living in remote rain forests of Venezuela.

During my early bat surveys in remote rain forests inhabited only by aboriginal Indians, I rarely encountered vampire bats. In fact, I do not recall ever having seen a Yanomamo Indian bitten, despite their habit of sleeping nude in lean-to shelters without mosquito nets. I first encountered significant numbers of vampire bats where Indians under European influence were keeping chickens, pigs, or other livestock. My anecdotal observations indicated that humans first became substantial targets when they began keeping pigs or chickens. Vampires became accustomed to feeding on these, and when they were slaughtered for feasts, the hungry bats turned to humans. Later when ranchers sold livestock, again suddenly reducing the food supply, vampires whose numbers had grown to depend on their herds, turned to people.

 

Only three species of vampires exist. All live only in Latin America, and only one, the common vampire, poses a significant threat to human interests. More than 350 other species are highly beneficial, keeping insect populations in check, pollinating flowers, and dispersing seeds.

A common vampire bat in Panama.

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Mosquito Eating in Bats

8/9/18
By Merlin Tuttle

For decades, bat biologists have debated the extent to which bats prey on, and potentially reduce mosquito populations. However, recent research suggests bats may be eating far more mosquitoes than yet suspected. Amy Wray and associates (2018) relied on newly refined techniques that provide greater sensitivity.

 

In their paper, titled Incidence and taxonomic richness of mosquitoes in the diets of little brown and big brown bats, they reported that these common species eat a greater variety of mosquitoes, and catch them more frequently than previously suspected.

Just one little brown myotis can catch 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour.

They tested guano samples from 22 locations in a range of habitats, across the State of Wisconsin, from May 17 through July 29. Seventy-two percent of little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) samples contained mosquitoes representing 15 species, more than twice as many as big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus). But even the larger big brown bats, previously thought to feed mostly on beetles and moths evidenced mosquito-eating in 33 percent of samples. Mosquito-eating remained constant throughout the active season in big brown bats but declined slightly in little browns.

A third of big brown bats in Wisconsin fed on mosquitoes.
Little brown myotis from Tennessee.

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