Their Eyes Were Watching God: Deep Dive
Bats have been the subject of much debate, from their long standing association with vampires to their recent memeification as pointy, flying kittens. Most people can’t seem to decide whether these mammals should be feared or loved. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in recent years with the rise of coronavirus, public opinion plays an important role in perception. The CDC even states that “bat populations could be further threatened by the disease itself or by harm inflicted on bats resulting from a misconception that bats are spreading COVID-19” on their website.
While there is no evidence that coronavirus began in a wet market filled with bats, they are one of the most commonly reported rabid animals in the United States. They are also, unfortunately, the leading cause of rabies deaths in people. However, these statistics don’t paint the entire picture. Much like their “involvement” with coronavirus, context is needed to understand both bats and rabies. Because of their small size and adorable faces, wild bats are more likely to be handled than other common rabies-carrying animals such as skunks and raccoons. Bat bites are often small and thin, meaning that people are less likely to seek treatment. Given the incredibly high stakes of contracting a rabies infection, it is wise and appropriate to approach bats with caution (or not at all) and seek prompt medical treatment after a bite or suspected bite.
Despite all this negative news, bats are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem. As a species, we cannot survive without bats. Well over 500 different species of plants rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including some tropical species that rely solely on bats for their reproduction. Bats have more energy and stamina than many other types of pollinators and can reach more plants over a longer distance. Most species of bat also keep pest populations under control with diets that include disease-carrying mosquitoes, crop-consuming beetles, and more. According to the 2011 article “The Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture” in Science, researchers at University of Tennessee at Knoxville estimated that “ bats provide between 3.7 and 22.9 billion dollars each year in pest control services in North America” with extreme estimates as high as “$53 billion a year.”
Bats also play a leading role in several aspects of our culture, often associated with darkness or death. In North American and European folklore, much like black cats, bats were seen as “familiars or even the alter egos of witches.” They are seen throughout an entire history’s worth of fictionalized work, from the short stories of John William Polidori (The Vamprye) all the way through fourteen (and counting) Batman movies. They are the well loved inspiration for several styles of fashion, including several subcultures of gothic fashion (though most prevalently seen in traditional goth). The Bat Conservation Trust went so far as to collaborate with fashion designer Ada Zanditon in order to draw awareness to the beauty of bats. The collection, Echolocation, “draws inspiration from the shape and movement of bats and is the culmination of months of work by the ethical fashion designer.”
Like with so many wild animals, though, it’s possible to regard bats with a healthy awareness of their potential status as a vector while still appreciating their role in nature and impact on culture. Overall, it’s estimated that less than 1% of all bats carry rabies. Arm yourself with information, protect yourself, but don’t panic! To be completely frank, mosquitos are much scarier and more dangerous to humans than our furry bat friends. Bats are not trying to hurt you. They’re just trying to live their little bat lives… which apparently features wickedly adorable dance-offs. Regardless of whether bats have your love or fear, they should have your respect. You can be curious and calm as well as cautious.
This blog is created by Hannah and Ella in conjunction with the These Books Made Me podcast, a Prince George’s County Memorial Library System production. Check out the corresponding episode, Their Eyes Were Watching God, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts. Or you can simply click on the link to the episode to listen.