Julie Maxey-Allison | 10th Street
Bats get a bad rap. It is worse now due to the devastating COVID-19 virus that has put our world on hold. A virus-infected horseshoe bat at a Chinese “wet” market in Wuhan, where live “wild” animals are sold for consumption, has been singled out as the probable source of our terrible pandemic. The infected bat’s opportunistic virus may have expanded on to a pangolin. Encouraged, the virus then “spilled over” from the animal host to a human host. The “spill over” factor is true for zoonotic diseases and past viruses. Nobody knows exactly how our current pandemic crisis got its start, just that once the deadly virus found human hosts, it thrived.
But that bat did not choose to infect a pangolin or human, the virus did.
In our area the most common bats are the Mexican free-tailed bat and the big brown bat. Twenty other species of bats (out of 1390 world wide) call San Diego County home—including the largest in North America, the Western mastiff bat, with a wingspan of more than 22 inches. Bats, the second largest group of mammals after rodents, are the only mammals able to fly.
Local bats are major garden and agricultural assets. The big brown bat is nicknamed “farmers’ friend” for good reasons. Nocturnal, our bats stay out of sight in their own hangouts during the day. They go out at dark to feed. Bats like bugs. They feast on farm and garden pests, reducing the need for pesticides. They pollinate plants at night along with moths to round out the job begun earlier by hummingbirds and bees. They disperse seeds. Bats are a “keystone species” in some tropical and desert ecosystems, keeping plants alive, providing food and cover for wildlife. Their guano aka bat s___, properly harvested, makes excellent fertilizer. In China, dried guano was used as gunpowder as late as World War I. Bats have also added to our vocabulary and at least one fictional character: Batman, Batmobile, batwing, batty.
Appreciate bats’ work but keep your distance. Experts stress that bats, left undisturbed in the wild, pose little risk to human health. However, the SD Health and Human Services Agency’s advice: do not touch a bat, any bat. The risk is rabies and 10 cases of rabid bats are reported yearly county wide. This advice holds for all wildlife. Zoonotic diseases are a risk in all animal farming but especially wildlife because of the novel diseases wild animals may carry.
If you do encounter a bat, contact your local animal control service or San Diego Humane Society’s Project Wildlife. For more information about bats: Bat Conservation International: batcon.org.