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Vampires Are No Myth in Mexico

Biology: Blood-eating bats strike cattle and humans alike, mingling a European legend with reality.

July 14, 2002|MARK STEVENSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Vampires are real, in bat form anyway, and many Mexicans have to live with them, along with dozens of other harmless bats.

Mexico--among the first places where Europeans saw blood-eating bats--may have been the birthplace of the modern Vampire myth, which associates the flying mammals with the much older legend of the living dead.

Oscar Barcelo, who runs a herd of cattle in the southern state of Chiapas--where a 2000 epidemic of bat-borne rabies killed thousands of cattle--has firsthand experience with real vampires.

"You see the bite marks on the cattle, then you start seeing the symptoms, and then the cows just buckle at the back legs and die," said Barcelo. "Between my father, my brother and I, we lost 100 head.

"We hate the vampires because of all the damage they cause."

It's not always just damage.

"We have documented in indigenous communities that they will feed on humans," said Steve Walker, executive director of Texas-based Bat Conservation International. Mexico's Indian communities are among the nation's most rural, poor and vulnerable.

The western state of Nayarit reported a small outbreak, with 45 people reportedly bitten by vampires in the first three months of the year, said Andrea Romero of the state public health department.

"Normally, vampires feed on cattle, but there are cases of attacks on humans who sleep out in the open or leave their doors and windows open at night," Romero said.

Vampires were once rare and jungle-dwelling, but with deforestation and the expansion of cattle ranches, "their food source has just multiplied enormously," Walker said.

Separating myth from reality is hard.

The vampire myth, born many centuries ago in Eastern Europe, describes the monsters as corpses that somehow came to life. They had no connection with bats because vampire bats do not exist in Europe.

But in Mexico--where the Spanish came in 1519-- the old myth met the new.

"Before the Spanish came here, vampires were just living corpses," bat researcher Rodrigo Medellin said. "But when [conquistador Hernan] Cortes landed at Veracruz and the bats began feasting on his horses, the myth was born."

One enduring myth is that the bats suck blood through straw-like teeth. They don't. They simply bite their prey, then lap up the blood.

The vampire bats are, however, genteel enough to spit out a bit of natural anesthetic and an anticoagulant that has new medical uses.

Their bite itself isn't harmful, and bats usually carry the same low incidence of rabies as other mammals, though in some colonies and in some areas that rate can increase.

Three species of vampire bats range over Mexico, Central America and the tip of South America. They're hard to love, even though Maria Luisa Franco, an educator who works for the Migratory Mammal Conservation Program, tries, passing out storybooks in rural communities about "Valentin," a little vampire bat who tries not to eat blood -- but must.

"We can't very well tell the kids that Valentin is cute and lovable," Franco said, "when they see vampires swoop down at night and bite the cattle."

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