Public Perception of bats

Long throughout human history bats have had a bad reputation. Many people of past and present fear bats, often due to common misconceptions related to disease. Since white-nose syndrome (an introduced fungal disease that does not harm humans) was noted to have killed millions of hibernating bats in North America, it seemed that the facts about bats’ tremendous benefits to not only the ecosystem but our own economy as well finally started to catch on among the general public. Then came SARS-CoV-2, causing a global pandemic and outbreak of panic among the human species, and the media was quick to jump at making a link with bats, claiming that the disease jumped from bats to people (a mechanism which is called ‘zoonosis’).

While the original source of this novel coronavirus has not been found and may never be identified definitively, the damage to bats’ reputation was already done and this was seen around the world, where people are destroying bat roosts, driving bats out of their own habitat, and killing many bats in the process out of fear of contracting diseases from these animals with which they have been living (often unaware) harmoniously for thousands of years.

Like any wildlife, bats of any species can carry diseases. However, the risks of contracting diseases from wildlife can be kept at a minimum by simply avoiding contact with these animals. In the relatively rare case where contact cannot be avoided or was already made, it is always important to contact a medical professional so appropriate precautions to warrant human safety can be taken.

Eastern small-footed myotis (Myotis leibii) taking off from a branch.

Eastern small-footed myotis (Myotis leibii) taking off from a branch. Photo by Jordi Segers

Wildlife managers across the world right now, are actually worried about the opposite of zoonosis, called anthroponosis: the mechanism through which other animals become infected with diseases from humans. While it is known that several species of bats can carry various coronaviruses (which have not been shown to be harmful to humans), it is unknown whether any bat species can contract SARS-CoV-2 from being in contact with or close proximity to a human. Secondly, if bats can contract this virus, it is not known whether infection will compromise the bat’s health. Due to these unknowns but legitimate concerns, wildlife management agencies around the world have been advised to put activities that require close proximity to bats on hold or are changing the ways in which wild bats are handled (e.g., by using extensive personal protective equipment that minimizes the risks of anthroponosis) until more is known about potential risks to bats.

While many diseases novel to the human population come from wildlife, it is not bats or other wildlife that is to blame, but only the way in which humans interact with these animals. Intruding into and destroying natural habitat drives wildlife to disperse and potentially come into close proximity with people. Bringing many wildlife species together outside their natural environment increases the chances of naturally occurring, relatively dormant diseases to jump between species, mutating along the way and potentially becoming dangerous to our own species. Thus, we as a species have to take responsibility for the spread of zoonotic diseases, learn from our mistakes, and change the way in which we perceive and manage wildlife to keep both them and us save from threats like disease.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative’s mission is “to promote and protect the health of wildlife and Canadians through leadership, partnership, investigation, and action”, because there are no healthy humans without healthy wildlife.

Submitted by Jordi Segers, National Bat White-nose Syndrome Scientific Program Coordinator, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative

This blog post is the featured story in out Bat Monthly newsletter of August 2020. The full newsletter can be found here.

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