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After Rabies Death, Dark Days for Bats

Houston residents stomp the critters and fumigate after an area teen is fatally bitten.

August 14, 2006|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Residents usually aren't much rattled by what nature throws their way here, but the death this spring of an area teenager infected with rabies by a bat that flew into his bedroom hit a nerve.

Throughout the summer -- amid reports of rabid bats in family garages and after the bat takeover of an apartment complex led to its evacuation and closure -- a citizen war on bats has been waged in backyards across the county.

Bearing much of the brunt is the Mexican free-tailed bat -- the species suspected in the teen's death and one of 11 species known to thrive on Houston's plentiful supply of insects. When it's not afraid of them, the city has coexisted peacefully with the winged mammals -- even taking pride in its bat population, which is estimated at a million or more.

Though health officials emphasized that less than half of 1% of the bat population may be infected, many Houstonians have taken to killing bats through fumigation or by stomping them. At least one man thought he could kill a bat by throwing bleach on it, but was himself sprayed with bleach as the bat flew away.

"People were freaking out," said Colleen Hodges, a spokeswoman for Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.

Houston's rabies control lab has been inundated with hundreds of dead bats that citizens have dropped off for testing. Until last month, staffers came in seven days a week to keep up; one microscope was so heavily used it broke.

The lab is testing twice as many specimens for rabies as it did this time last year, supervisor Cynthia Turner said. "People keep bringing in bats," she said. "The young man's death really affected them."

The rabid bat that killed 16-year-old Zach Jones apparently flew into the house while he was asleep. Feeling the bat brush against his face, Jones woke up. The bat was caught in a towel and released outside. Jones didn't suspect he had been exposed to rabies and did not seek treatment.

About a month later, he became ill and was admitted to the hospital, where he died May 12. His is the only known human rabies death this year in the United States.

Although the incidence of humans contracting rabies is rare, when the viral disease successfully attacks the nervous system, it is usually fatal. Anyone exposed to rabies, from the bite of a bat or other carrier, can usually avoid contracting the disease if they are vaccinated soon after.

Bat anxiety in southeast Texas intensified last month when city health officials in Lake Jackson, 50 miles south of Houston, evacuated the Casa del Lago apartments after finding about 2,000 bats there.

"Those things were everywhere," in chimneys, under children's toys, between the walls and in the attic, City Manager Bill Yenne said. "Bat guano was dripping down the ceiling. The smell was terrible." When paneling was removed from the side of a building, "two or three dozen bats flew out," he said.

Bats began roosting in the poorly maintained complex years ago, but apparently their numbers grew after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit last year, Yenne said. When a rabid bat was found dead near the apartments, the city took a closer look. "People shouldn't be allowed to live in such filth," Yenne said.

The 300 residents living at Casa del Lago were moved to another complex in a nearby town. Casa del Lago's owner, who lives in New York, has until Aug. 31 to relocate the bats or otherwise rid the buildings of them, Yenne said.

Back in Houston, bat supporters blanched as the killings continued, and reminded residents that bats consume up to two-thirds of their weight in mosquitoes and other insects. "They're important for pest control in Houston," Hodges said.

So far this year, 57 bats have tested positive for rabies in Harris County, compared with 28 in 2005. The number of rabies cases rose this year because more bats have been tested, Turner said. In July 2006, the lab tested 656 specimens, most of which were bats; 256 specimens were tested in July 2005.

Despite the rabies scare, a colony of 250,000 bats that lives under a small, heavily traveled bridge near downtown Houston remains a local attraction.

During the day, the sound of chittering bats and the overpowering smell of bat guano easily lead to the roosting spot at the Waugh Drive Bridge. After dusk, the bats swoop out as small groups of people gather to watch. "You May Wish to Step Back During Bat Flight to Avoid Droppings," read warning signs posted on the bridge.

"It's cool there are so many bats in an urban environment," said Dan Tremble, 51, who passes the bridge on daily runs. "The smell isn't great, but I'm not worried about rabies because chances are you won't get it."

But Tremble's sister, Rhonda Hill, is not a bat enthusiast, and recent events have confirmed her dim view of them. "It tripped me out," said Hill, 49, of the bat rabies threat.

She warily eyed the bridge, pondering the thousands of bats living beneath it. Hill can't believe people voluntarily watch the bats emerge -- "Isn't that what zoos are for?" -- and worries about "how germy" they are.

"You didn't really think about them before but I guarantee you, I look up a lot more now," she said.

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((BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mexican free-tailed bat

A medium-sized bat, its body is 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches long, with a wingspan of about 12 1/2 inches.

Fur color varies from dark brown to gray.

Lives in large colonies in buildings, caves, culverts and under bridges across the southern U.S., with the greatest concentrations in Texas, and in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Estimated population in the U.S. is more than 120 million.

Eats insects such as moths, ants and beetles.

Lifespan is 13 to 18 years for males and 12 years for females, which produce one offspring a year.

Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, Wildlife Trust

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