Batty adventures attract veterinarian

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2012

I itch. All because I went batting. No, not that kind.

Like several of my adventure stories, it sounded like a really good idea at the time. It started when I got an email several months ago.

They were doing a bat study in my area and did I want to volunteer? Well, of course I did! I have spend almost two decades volunteering so that they remember to invite me when something like this comes up.

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White Nose Syndrome is decimating bat populations. Rapidly spreading from the North East US into Canada and the Midwest, current estimates are 5.5 million bats dead.

This doesn’t even count the 33,000 to 111,000 bats that wind turbines kill annually. Now if you happen to think that bats are evil creatures of the night, the estimated agricultural costs of the loss of these bats is $22.9 billion a year. Each year.

“These estimates include the reduced costs of pesticide applications that are not needed to suppress the insects consumed by bats. However, they do not include the downstream impacts of pesticides on humans, domestic and wild animals and our environment,” said Gary McCracken from University of Tennessee in Science. “Without bats, crop yields are affected. Pesticide applications go up. Even if our estimates were quartered, they clearly show how bats have enormous potential to influence the economics of agriculture and forestry.”

Twenty-three billion a year is a lot of money, but even more important I am all for less toxic chemicals in our land, our water, our food supply and my body.

A small colony of 150 big brown bats can eat 1.3 million insects a year. Personally, I wish there had been a few more bats eating a lot more mosquitoes while we were trapping the bats at the mine openings.

I am quite sensitive to bug sprays and try to do without, however the mosquitoes were quite hungry while we were out. So, I have several mosquito bites. Did I mention, they itch.

The researchers have found that White Nose Syndrome is caused by a fungus, Geomyces destructans. During bat hibernation it will grow the hair like fungal forms like the ones seen in my refrigerator.

The fungus causes the bats to wake up more often, use more energy and then they often die before spring. We know that the spores can be carried from cave to cave by people especially during the winter when bat numbers are high in caves and abandoned mines.

Dr. Anne Ballmann is a Wildlife Disease Specialist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. She is taking samples of the bats to study the summer transmission of the disease.

She and her technician have been traveling to various states and examining and swabbing bats for the fungus.

The Wayne National Forest site is important because we know that it has White Nose Syndrome and the bats use it during the summer.

So Katrina Schultes, the Wildlife Biologist for Wayne National Forest is contacted. She, in turn, contacts me and several others. Twelve years ago, before WNS, we collected 117 bats at this site in a couple of hours.

That is a lot of bats to process, so we have staff and volunteers from several agencies and universities going to two different sites. In the dark, I have trouble with all the names and places.

Stephanie goes with me the second night. She points out the hibernaculum is a short hike in, but I maintain that it always seems longer coming out in the dark. Regardless, it is a WNS “contaminated” site which means everything that goes to the mine has to come out in a plastic bag and then thoroughly disinfected.

This includes the clothes and shoes that we are wearing. It is hot even at midnight hiking out of the forest, so few vote for the Tyvek coveralls that don’t breath. Some change completely 50 yards from the mine.

I vote for shorts and T-shirt under clothes. Somehow during changing shoes and clothes in the forest at night I pick up more than a few chiggers. Wow, do they itch.

Setting up humane traps and nets in front of the mine openings, we are hoping for the same “over a hundred bats in two hours,” but we are seriously disappointed.

We stand by the nets for a lot longer than two hours and get only get 5 that first night. It is thought that perhaps the tarps block too much of the airflow, there are too many people or the bats are going out another exit.

So the next night we set up wildlife netting instead of the tarps and another net at a second opening.

Only people who have their rabies vaccinations can actually handle bats. And there have to be two bat handlers at each site, so I end up with a prevet student, Travis, and a permit administrator, Melissa.

The trail is not as good and I pick up a few more chiggers (remember the itch thing?) and a more than a few scrapes. As we are setting up, I notice the entire rock face over my head is poison ivy.

I will recognize the fact that I didn’t quite stay out of it later in the week. That, too, itches.

The strategy pays off. There are still not as many bats as we would like, but the main site has 15 study bats and some outside the mine bats and our secondary site has five.

We take the last bat out of our net at 11:59 p.m. I tell Melissa that this one looks different, but neither of us want to risk letting it slip out of our hands to be sure.

The bat goes in the bag and Travis takes it to the processing site. Melissa and I start taking down the net and packing up. Both of us feel better about getting the bats out of the net and proud of ourselves.

Two more days will be needed for this site, but there are only so many nights that I can stay out until 2 a.m. and still work.

Stephanie will later say, “we did all these bats and then everybody got real excited about this one little bat.”

That last bat that Melissa and I had gotten was an endangered Indiana or gray bat. Needless to say they are quite rare and a special treat.

But getting to go out with the various agencies and volunteer on their studies is always a special treat. And an extra special treat when it involves bats.

Yes, I really believe that, even if it means that I will be itching for a few weeks.


MJ Wixsom practices veterinarian medicine at Guardian Animal Medical Center in Flatwoods, Ky. For questions, call 606-928-6566.