You'll often hear that bats are dirty pests that people would be better off without. Is this true? Not really. It turns out that many of the stories about bats are just myths. Bats are not dirty and they generally don't bother people at all. Bats will sometimes move into buildings or other places that people don't want them, but they're just looking for a home! Bats are also beneficial in many ways. In the US, most bat species eat insects. Of course, we would all really like bats to eat mosquitoes, but mosquitoes are generally just too small for bats to bother with, so they are not going to do a lot to help us get rid of those insect pests. However, bats do eat many species of insects that would like to eat our crops or gardens, so keeping bats around is a good thing.
This image shows some of the insect species we don't like that bats are likely to eat
You also hear about bats carrying disease and making people sick. It is true that bats can have rabies and you should never disturb a bat. You may have also heard news reports on bats carrying diseases like SARS. While the evidence is strong that bats were the initial source of SARS, this occurred in China, and further spreading of the disease seems to have come from human to human contact (click here for more information). In general it's a good idea to avoid wild bats to keep everyone involved safe. Probably the biggest disease you hear about is rabies, which is a very serious disease. However, the risks of rabies from bats is generally much less than most people think it is. You can find more information about rabies by going to this page from Bat Conservation International.
In general, most wild animals are afraid of humans, and bats are no exception. If you disturb a bat, it will try to defend itself in the only way it knows how: by biting. If you are bitten by a bat, you should seek medical attention to make sure you are properly treated. However, bats do not seek humans out, so if you leave them alone, they will generally do the same for you! If you see a bat in a place where it should not be, notify the appropriate authorities (generally the Department of Animal Control) so that trained professionals can handle the situation.
It's also important to leave bats alone for another reason - it's better for the bats. Bats tend to like to live in places with precise conditions, which include limited disturbance from large animals like humans. If you bother the bats, they may feel threatened and move on to a new place. This is especially bad during the winter months when many species of North American bats are hibernating. Since they are required to live off their stored fat (since there are few insects around for them to eat) they can die if they are disturbed when they should be hibernating. So for their sake and yours, please just leave the bats alone!
This has become even more important as many bat species in North America are suffering from serious declines. Many of the reasons for these declines seem to involve humans in some way, such as habitat destruction, but two of the biggest problems for bats have only become well-known in the last few years. In fact, bats are in so much trouble that there is real concern that they will be wiped out from large parts of their habitat, and their numbers have already declined dramatically. The two biggest sources of trouble for bats are described in more detail below.
If you want to help bats, your best bet is to take some action to help protect bats, by letting other people know how important bats are, lobbying for bats and their habitat to receive protection, and by donating to (and working with) one of organizations devoted to bats and their conservation. There are a number of different such organizations, but a few are listed below:
- Bat Conservation International - focused on bats worldwide, but based in the US - the major such organization in the US
- The Organization for Bat Conservation - based in Michigan
- The Lubee Bat Conservancy
- Basically Bats Wildlife Society - based in Florida - a small organization, but has worked on a variety of projects to help bats including studies on improving their diet in captivity, providing milk substitutes for juvenile bats, etc.