I had mixed feelings while watching the September 15, 2021 airing of PBS’ NOVA program, Bat Superpowers: Could the source of the deadliest viruses hold the secret to a healthier and longer life? Most of the scientists interviewed clearly liked bats and wanted to aid in their protection. Nevertheless, despite the many positive things reported, for the public, the take-home message was confusing – “Bats are really cool and likable, but they are also dangerous spreaders of the world’s deadliest diseases.”
Unfortunately, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. Rattlesnakes are widely understood to be beneficial, but they are almost universally killed when found near humans. In fact, on the mere possibility of being venomous, nearly all snakes are killed.
From the 1970s to the mid-80s, exaggerated media warnings claimed most bats were rabid and aggressive. And fearful Americans spent millions of dollars annually paying exterminators to kill them. In more than 60 years studying bats, I have personally documented instances in which thousands at a time were poisoned in buildings or burned alive in their caves. I have also saved millions by simply helping people put fear in perspective.
A large proportion of our planet’s remaining bats have no option but to live in close association with humans. They can’t be isolated in special reserves away from humans nor would we benefit even if that were possible. In the NOVA program bats are wrongly claimed to host more viruses than any other animals. They are even blamed for spreading Ebola, despite evidence to the contrary. I have summarized current knowledge and explained how programs like this can do more harm than good in my resource titled, “Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste.”
In a program intended to help bats, why were we not informed that the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are minuscule for anyone who simply doesn’t handle them? Most of the deadly diseases speculatively attributed to bats have yet to be found in a bat. And transmission from bats to humans is rarely confirmed. Nevertheless, a vastly disproportionate search for viruses in bats has become a viral witch hunt.
Forty years ago, I convinced Thai monks at Khao Chong Pran Cave to hire a game warden to protect their precipitously declining bats. Millions have now been restored, and guano fertilizer sales have risen dramatically, currently amounting to roughly $200,000 annually. The bats also provide at least $300,000 each year in rice crop protection and attract valuable tourism. Despite some of the world’s closest and prolonged exposure to bats during weekly guano harvests, no disease outbreaks have been reported, nor have virologists uncovered evidence to support their warnings of potentially grave danger.
Where I live in Austin, Texas, up to 1.5 million bats were nearly eradicated in the early 1980s when misguided health officials warned they were mostly rabid and dangerous. Just in time, I convinced the city that its bats, if protected, would make wonderful neighbors. Decades later, no one has been harmed while enjoying these bats’ spectacular emergences close-up. The bats simply attract millions of tourist dollars annually and rid us of tons of insect pests nightly.
It’s time to spread the full truth! Bats are far more than just beneficial. They have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans.
Our combined voices can make a difference. We encourage you to politely share your opinion in your own words via email and social media. You may find our resources, Give Bats a Break and Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste, additionally helpful when composing your personal reply and discussing these topics with others. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate misleading speculation that perpetuates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article for you to have an impact. It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help.