Oujournalist’s Blog

The blog of a freelancing journalist in Arizona

Fear drives people batty June 21, 2011

Filed under: wildlife — Candace Hughes @ 10:48 pm
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Fear drives people batty

People who dislike bats because of the possibility of rabies also may be unhappy with the mammal due to the technology used in the speed radar vans now parked alongside roadways, said Bill Burger, a wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Despite the high-tech uses of bats’ ability to “echolocate” or send sounds unable to be heard by most humans, residents should thank the bats for the large number of mosquitoes eaten without the use of pesticides, he pointed out.

During a “Batty over Bats” presentation as part of the Central Arizona College Lifelong Learner program at the Superstition Mountain campus, Burger outlined the laws making it illegal to damage caves or kill bats and discussed the incidents of rabies caused by bats.

Burger also spoke recently at San Tan Mountain Regional Park in northern Pinal County where gates have been put over caves and abandoned mines to keep humans out of the hazardous areas and to protect roosts of the California leaf-nosed bats that frequent central Arizona.

As a non-game specialist, Burger has advised a Casa Grande business under renovation to conduct their work during the cooler months when bats have migrated from the structure.

“Bats were roosting under some facing on their building and I suggested they schedule the work when the bats were away,” he explained. It is illegal to kill or injure bats, Burger emphasized.

In addition, he pointed out that area Native American tribes have been recording bats’ use of the Mammon Mine south of Casa Grande, a habitat for the endangered lesser long-nosed bat. The small yellow-brown or gray mammal pollinates saguaros and organ pipe cactus and the Mexican long-tongued bat primarily feeds on agave flowers.

“The mine is on tribal lands and access is closed except by special permission,” said Burger, who added that he tells people never to enter caves or abandoned mines for the safety of humans and welfare of bats that may leave if disturbed.

Education about the flying mammals and vaccination of pets against rabies lessens fear of bats, Burger said.

While few people are infected with rabies by bats, it’s best to be cautious and never try to kill, pick up, chase or handle bats or any wildlife.

The state Department of Health Services tests bats and other mammals suspected of having rabies.

“Many rabies exposures involve kids playing with bats,” said Elisabeth Lawaczeck, state public health veterinarian. “Most of these exposures are preventable through education. That’s why we’re encouraging school children across Arizona to become more aware about rabies and to respect wildlife from a distance.”

Many counties vaccinate pets for rabies at open clinics.

If bats are found, whether in a home or outside a structure, animal control should be called immediately and pets and people should stay away, said Linda Ericson, Casa Grande animal control supervisor.

“Bats are one of the highest carriers of rabies and we should be called if one is found,” she emphasized.

Ruth Stalter, director of Pinal County Animal Care and Control, agreed that prevention is the best way to deal with rabies and the possibility of exposure from bats or other wildlife. Animals and humans will die of rabies if they are bitten and if they aren’t vaccinated or don’t receive the shots, she said.

“If bats are found, do not try to kill or catch them. Leave them alone and call us,” said Stalter. “We have officers who know how to handle them. People think they’ll get a broom and get them down, and then the bat falls on them and they’re exposed.”

Bats or other nocturnal animals such as skunks with unusual behavior such as being active in the daytime should be reported, she added.

Pinal County’s animal control officers have the series of rabies shots, which are no longer the painful injections used in the past, she said.

“It’s always best to rule on the side of caution because bats have very small teeth and a lot of times people don’t realize they are bitten and don’t know that their pets have been bitten,” Stalter said.

Burger of the Arizona Game and Fish Department agreed that education is the key to erasing fear of bats.

Vampire bats that drink blood are only found in tropical regions, and are not among the 28 species found in Arizona, said Burger, who spends most of his time doing education and visiting caves and abandoned mines.

He’s currently working with Tonto National Forest and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to see which mines should have gates installed so that bats will not be disturbed.

Some Arizona bats hibernate and if disturbed in the winter when there are fewer insects, large populations could die. The Western pipistrille is the small species humans often see at dusk diving after Pinal County’s mosquitoes, but bats also eat moths and other insects that harm crops, Burger said.

Bats pollinate agaves, so tequila lovers need to thank the flying mammal for its ability to hover by the plant, he added.

It’s also important not to bother pregnant and nursing bats, which is why part of Karchner Caverns is closed at times, he explained.

Simply entering a cave with a flashlight can disturb bats, which have seen numbers decrease rapidly recently, he added. “They have the slowest reproductive rate on earth for an animal their size and don’t reach sexual maturity for several years, so if the population declines it takes a long time to build it up again,” he said.

Babies can’t fly until they are three-four weeks old and are vulnerable, he explained.

Violators of the Arizona Cave Protection Act may be found guilty of a class II misdemeanor requiring community service and a fine paid to the Arizona Department of Fish and Game to help with protecting non-game species, Burger said.

Money from the Heritage Fund raised by sales of lottery tickets supports Burger’s efforts, and no tax dollars are spent for his program.

Halloween night marauders are cautioned against searching for bats. “Your cell phone isn’t going to work in a cave so you’re basically screwed,” said Regina Whitman of Desert Cry, the only certified wildlife rehabilitation specialist in Pinal County.

A member of Friends of the San Tans, she bemoaned an incident in which thieves crashed a stolen car into an abandoned mine in the San Tan mountains. “Old abandoned mines have been taken over by bats and owls and people should stay out. Mines and caves aren’t mapped and there are no trails. They are not tourist attractions,” she said.

“If you want to go spelunking, go to a state park where this is allowed,” said Whitman, who has received a rabid bat and turned it over to Liberty Wildlife and reported the names of people who had touched the animal.

“If they’re found, not just bats or any wild animal, do not try to care for it or keep it. It’s against the law to keep a wild animal without a permit and it’s against nature,” she explained.

“They’re not pets. They have very special wants and needs and shouldn’t be kept in captivity. They won’t make good pets and you shouldn’t try to raise them as pets because you can’t raise a wild animal. They’ll grow to trust pets and people and if released then they’re dead,” she said.

“People often try to care for them and then realize they’ve made a mistake when the animal’s not doing well and it’s too late. If they’ve had the wrong food or care, it’s hard to reverse that,” said Whitman, who carries food and medicine for some, but not all wild creatures found in the county.

More information

If you find an injured or sick bat, call Adobe Mountain Wildlife Rescue at 623-582-9806, but do not pick up the bat. Liberty Wildlife also has veterinarians to assist with bats by calling 480-998-5550. The Arizona Health Department will test the animal for rabies. If bitten, seek medical treatment immediately. Only one person in the United States died of rabies last year, and most people who contract rabies are bitten by dogs and cats.

Desert Cry Wildlife, an all-volunteer organization in the Queen Creek area of Pinal County, acts as a way station for many injured or sick animals, but does not treat bats. Telephone: 480-987-3544 or visit. http://www.welcome.to/desertcry.

Rabies prevention

The best way to prevent rabies is to have all cats and dogs vaccinated.

Report incidents of bat injuries

To report people entering caves or mines to injure bats, call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-352-0700. More information on non-game (or animals that aren’t hunted) is available at the Arizona Game and Fish Web site azgfd.gov. The Mesa office may be reached at 480-942-3000. It is illegal to enter caves or abandoned mines and it’s illegal to injure or kill bats.

Other helpful telephone numbers

Arizona Department of Health Services for rabies testing may be contacted at 602-542-1000 or visit the Web site at: http://www.azdhs.gov. Address: 150 N. 18th Ave., Phoenix. Citizens are advised to never pick up and transport bats, but call animal control.

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