Moviegoers aren’t the only ones seeing bats these days.
Many police departments and public health officials on the North Shore are getting more reports of the winged mammals showing up where they’re not wanted. And while they say the increase in bat sightings is not out of the ordinary — this is the time of year when newly born bats are most likely to blunder into your house — there is something to worry about.
“We’re certainly getting calls about bats,” Peabody Health Director Sharon Cameron said. “And they can be a potential health hazard. They carry rabies.” Further, rabies is fatal when not treated.
In Essex, police have gotten a few couple calls, Chief Peter G. Silva said, the latest coming this past Thursday.
“They don’t want anything to do with people,” he said. “And they’re nothing a bag and broom can’t handle.”
Salem, police have been fielding regular phone calls from nervous homeowners who discover bats inside the house.
“We always go and try to help them out,” Sgt. Kathleen Makros said. And it’s not surprising residents call. “A lot of people are really afraid of them.”
On the night of Aug. 11, for example, an officer responded to a resident on Pope Street who was plagued by a bat. The officer captured the animal with a net provided by the homeowner. At that point, police customarily release the creature back outside.
Meanwhile, the homeowner declined the return of the net, and police have retained it for future bat calls.
While Essex and Salem may be more batty than usual, police in Gloucester, Manchester and Rockport said they haven’t noticed an uptick in bat calls. Yet, regular calls about bats are coming in all over the rest of the North Shore, according to Wendy Smith of A1 Exterminators in Lynn, which has operations throughout the state.
Bat calls are outsourced, she explains, to a company called Precision Wildlife, which deals with animals in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. “Right now, there’s a lot of calls for bats,” said Smith, though she adds that “this is the season for it.”
People call, Smith said, because they’re more afraid of the bats than the bats are afraid of them. “But bats don’t go attacking people.” Which doesn’t stop people from reacting fearfully. “I had a woman just call who had a bat trapped in her room.”
A disagreeable smell can signal an entire bat colony in the attic, Smith said. The removal of a single bat from the home can cost nearly $200.
In Peabody, Cameron warns that these nocturnal visitors are not to be taken lightly. “If you wake up and there’s a bat in your room — that’s potential exposure.” The concern is the possibility of being infected and not realizing it. “The bat’s teeth are so small you might not even know if you’ve been bitten.”
Citing the dangers, she urges action if there are any doubts. “Sometimes people feel silly, but it is serious.” Get medical attention, she urges.
Tom French, assistant director of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, confirms that “we’re getting lots of calls now.” His “Homeowner’s Guide to Bats” is available at the state website and offers common-sense advice on dealing with them.
While he endorses Cameron’s concerns over bats, he qualifies them. “(Hers) is the position that the Centers for Disease Control has taken.” He won’t contradict it, but adds that some biologists think the fear of bat bites so small you can’t feel them is an “overreaction.”
When a bat bites, French points out, “It hurts.” To pass rabies, “it’s got to draw blood. ... It’s not all that minor.”
In the past, he buttressed this by pointing out that Massachusetts has no known case of someone dying from bat-borne rabies. He can’t say that anymore.
A Barnstable resident died of the disease only last January. A bat in his room “landed on his face,” French said. “He woke up with a start, and he was slapping it off. It didn’t come off at first.” Worse yet, the man failed to get treatment.
French denies that there are more bats around. In fact, there are fewer with the species of small brown bats, once the most common, now largely eliminated by a fungus that caused a disease called “white nose syndrome.” It’s likely, he said, that the bats seen in local homes are large brown bats, newly born and blundering about after just learning to fly.
Favorite homes for the larger species of bat include attics and, yes, belfries.
If there is an increase in bats invading homes, it could be connected to the extraordinary heat or drought, French said. He warns that it’s generally illegal to kill bats. In fact, they perform a useful function.
“If you have a bat colony, it will keep your mosquito population at a tolerable level,” he said. Bats eat mosquitoes.
Alan Burke may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to evict a bat As part of its booklet "Homeowner's Guide to Bats" (available online at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/wildlife/publications/bat_guide.pdf), the state offers some common-sense suggestions should you find one flying around your room. Hysteria may follow, but the bat "can be dealt with quite easily." It won't get entangled in your hair, according to the guide. Nor should you start whacking at it with a broom or tennis racket. Try to close off the room and open a window. "It is usually only a matter of a few minutes before the bat leaves." You can carry the bat out , but only if you use leather gloves. Or you can throw a towel over it. Never touch the bat with thin gloves or bare hands. The state discourages calling police or firefighters. "They have more important duties to perform." More detailed suggestions are available if a whole colony of bats picks your belfry or attic for a home. On the flip side, there are also suggestions for attracting a bat colony.