On the back page of today's edition an Associated Press story about an eastern-Missouri teen recovering from a bat bite. She's going through the series of rabies shots, which are dreadful by reputation but not as dreadful as the alternative.
As Howard Pue, public health veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, puts it: "There's no room for error. You get rabies, you die."
Comforting words for someone who lives in an old house that apparently appears to be an oasis for bats during June and early July.
Health experts, including those from the Centers for Disease Control, recommend that we "call for professional help to capture a bat" and we certainly wouldn't want to argue with that advice except to note that it's not very practical hereabouts.
It was my first inclination when, two days after we moved into our big old house the first week of July 2004, we had a bat break in through the chimney and come blasting out of the fireplace, causing shrieks of alarm from all three girls (Amy was still in Champaign, or she might have added to the chorus). I didn't shriek, of course. Shrieking is unbecoming the Big Brave Father sort of guy. I just said something I can't print in a family newspaper and dived for cover as nonchalantly as I could.
When we discovered that the CDC did not have a field office in Marshall we realized we would have to capture the bat ourselves. First we tried the preferred method of bat eradication: We flung open the doors and armed with towels, which we flapped vigorously, tried to shoo the thing out into the wild, where it belonged.
It, however, failed to notice the open door and failed to be impressed by our flailings, choosing instead to swoop in endless circles around our living room, just over our heads.
When it finally needed to take five and landed, we acted quickly, capturing it in a small box. Then I did what seemed like the next step in such a crisis and called the city's animal control number.
The officer I talked to said, "Aw, you can just catch it with a towel or a box of some kind, take it outside and let it go. That's all we'd do. You know, those things are just mice with wings."
That was when it started to sink in that we weren't in Kansas any more (so to speak; we've never actually lived in Kansas). We were in rural Missouri. And in rural Missouri the authorities expect the citizenry to manage their own affairs and handle the little stuff like potentially rabid bats menacing small children and nervous adults.
Well, we succeeded in delivering that bat into the out-of-doors without incident, and the experience was very useful, because about the same time every year since, the bats reappear. Many bats, actually. Some nights they come back in as fast as we can turn them out. I apply cardboard and duct tape all over the place, trying to seal up the house against the onslaught, but they find a way in.
One night we had seven visitors (assuming it wasn't the same bat going out and coming back in). It was like Hitchcock's "The Birds" but with bats -- and without the creepy backgound music. After the third one my oldest daughter, Flannery, observed that it was no longer very exciting. I noticed the girls weren't putting as much enthusiasm into their shrieks. After five it was becoming routine. No shrieks, just muttering under breath. By the seventh, we were getting bored and a little annoyed with the exercise.
All this experience has given me an opportunity to hone my bat-eviction technique. The CDC recommendations are sound, of course, especially the part about wearing heavy-duty work gloves. And I would add that donning a long-sleeve shirt, blue jeans and shoes is a good idea, too. But waiting for a bat to land so you can slam a box or coffee can over it is about as impractical as waiting for a professional to show up to do the job, at least for the chronically impatient, like me.
So I use a good, thick bath towel and swat the critters out of the sky as they swoop past. Hitting the ground stuns them momentarily, long enough for me to toss the towel over them, roll them up in it and carry them outside, where they shake their little heads a couple of times and fly off, with our blessings, to much more mosquitoes.
It's important not to hit them too hard. This is an exercise in eviction, not batricide. It's also not necessary to panic. Although the AP article notes that of 23 animals testing positive for rabies this year, 20 were bats, it also notes that that bats are much more likely to be tested than other animals because they tend to get closer to humans more frequently. Web sites on bats and rabies note that only about one half of one percent of bats are infected with rabies. Many more people die of dog attacks or bee stings than bat bites.
Still, bats should be treated with caution because the potential for rabies is there.
The "bat season" seems to last for six or seven weeks. Then they just stop coming in. I don't know why they think our house is such a cool place to hang out. We don't have a big supply of mosquitoes for them to munch on (though there are plenty outside). We can't imagine what they see in us since we're such lousy hosts and evict them as soon as possible. They don't seem to relish being ensnared in towels or trapped in boxes. I've been cussed out by angry bats so often than I believe I could cuss in bat language if I had to.
But we're resigned to the fact that old houses are sieves. Bats, for some reason of their own, annually invade. We, just as annually, renew our eviction skills.
And so we will co-exist as peacefully as we may.