Rats in the belly, bats in the belfry

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

The face of my big brown bat, carefully displayed in the hands of biologist Joseph Okoniewski.

I tried not to pass on my fears to my children. I don’t like snakes and I don’t like bats.  It was easy to hide my phobias from my daughters because their father has an appreciation for both.

For our honeymoon, we drove across the country — from the East Coast to the West — for me to meet his Oregon family. When we finally crossed into his home state, which he always spoke of almost like the Promised Land, we stepped out of our car to celebrate.

Desert stretched as far as we could see, the barren landscape marked only with an occasional abandoned shack, weathered gray. As we wandered about, my husband spotted what to him was a prize: a rattlesnake. He handed me a stick and told me to keep the snake there while he ran to our car and got his camera.

I wondered if a honeymoon was too soon to end a marriage as I ran past him, shouting that, if I got to the car first, I’d drive away.

The marriage outlasted the honeymoon, and our daughters had a pet snake named Mister Slick. They found it in our yard and kept it in a glass tank in our kitchen. To this day, my husband is protective of the snakes in our yard, calling out loudly and beating the ground before he mows so they have a chance to slither away.

One anniversary, as I was quietly lamenting the lack of a gift, I heard my husband call to my window, exclaiming jubilantly, “Giant milkshake!” — he knows I love chocolate. Imagine my disappointment when I rushed outside to learn he was extolling the wonders of a giant milk snake.

One of the greatest joys I had as a parent of young children was making their dreams come true. It was so easy at Halloween; they could be anything they wanted.

Often the girls wanted costumes in tandem: I sewed Saranac a rabbit suit of white fur so she could jump out of the hat held by her sister, Maggie, turned into a magician. One year, Saranac decided to be a witch and Maggie was to be her pet bat.

Maggie, who went on to major in biology, had grown enamored of the flying mammals while visiting her grandparents on Upper Saranac Lake. She slept in the boathouse with her grandmother who loved to watch the bats flying in and out.

I gamely figured a way to make felt wings Maggie could unfurl. Meanwhile, her sister memorized a poem by Theodore Roethke about bats.

I wondered, if I hid my fears long enough, would they cease to exist? I found out last week when I awoke to a bat flying about my bedroom. I had my answer: I screamed.

After a sleepless night, I searched the house high and low and could find no sign of a bat nor any means of entry. Parts of the house are over 200 years old, so there may have been places I didn’t see.

I called my daughter, Saranac, in Philadelphia for her to recite her long-ago-learned bat poem, thinking it would calm me:

 

“By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.

He likes the attic of an aging house.

 

His fingers make a hat about his head.

His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead....”

 

I cut her off after the first two couplets, thinking: Clearly Roethke didn’t understand the terror of bats.

When we’d occasionally encountered bats before, my husband was careful to catch them in a net and release them. He mourned the dead little brown bats he found after the White Nose Syndrome had struck. Saranac broke the story of their demise before the syndrome even had a name.

But my bat-loving husband was visiting his parents in Oregon last Sunday when I heard our dog, Rip — short for Rip Van Winkle — making a fuss. By the time I got to him, the bat he’d tangled with looked dead. As I reached for it, it spread its wings, opened its mouth wide, bared its teeth, and I think it hissed at me. I don’t know because, once again, I screamed, drowning out all else.

I boxed the bat and went to the news office for most of the rest of the night; nothing like work to soothe a distracted brain. On Monday morning, I began calling to find out if my dog or myself were in danger of rabies.

The assistant at my doctor’s office relayed a message from the doctor that I should go to the emergency room sooner rather than later. But I had a busy day ahead with a couple of meetings to cover and I figured, as long as I had the bat, I should get it tested.

Many calls later, I was lucky to find Joseph Okoniewski, a biologist with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, who told me, if I brought the bat to the pathology lab next to Five Rivers, he’d take a look at it.

He was in the midst of examining a red bat when I arrived, and was a font of knowledge. He took the now-dead bat I’d brought out of its box and held it in his rubber-gloved hands. He told me it was a big brown bat — a different species than a little brown bat — which, unlike the red bat on his table that lives in trees, was a house bat.

“You can see it’s a male,” he said.

No, actually, I couldn’t; I’d been too terrified. In his calming presence, though, I was able to focus, and yes, I could clearly see its — I guess I should now say his — penis.

Okoniewski looked further and said the bat was probably less than two years old and hadn’t mated. He explained that bats typically live to 20 years. Big brown bats nest in communities, he said.

“I like bats,” he said. “They’re cute.”

He gently held the bat in his fingers so I could see its face.

For the first time, I started thinking of my bat as a being; I was even beginning to feel sorry for him, dead before his time and never having had the pleasure of mating.

Okoniewski calmed me about rabies, too, saying that, although the prevalence is different for different species, it averages 3 or 4 percent — and even that he thinks is high since bats that are found on the ground, like the red bat on his table, are more likely to have rabies.

I stayed in his lab for a good long time, just basking in his knowledge as he told me a bit about his career — he’d started by “chasing coyotes in the Adirondacks” — and about rabies in general and bats in particular.

He said if I didn’t hear from the county’s health department by the next day, there was probably nothing to worry about. I went happily on my way.

The next day, I got a call from the health department. My bat had tested positive for rabies.  I lamented that I should have gone to the emergency room right away but was told that would have done no good: There is no test for humans with rabies; by the time the symptoms showed, it would be too late.

I waivered about an expensive course of shots when I had no time. I was told I’d be sent a certified letter, indicating I could die.

So I signed up. The woman scheduling the shots on Tuesday afternoon was accommodating when I told her I couldn’t start on Wednesday morning or my paper might not be published. I started on Thursday after covering a court sentencing.

It turns out the county pays for anything my insurance doesn’t cover. And, having been through the first five shots at the county’s health clinic in Albany, I can honestly say, it’s not so bad. Everyone in the department I’ve encountered — from the man who broke the news to the nurses who gave the shots — has been informative and helpful.

My veterinarian’s office was equally accommodating, giving Rip, who was already vaccinated against rabies, a booster shot on Tuesday, the very day I found out the bat was rabid. This kept me from re-playing scenes in my head from a childhood favorite, Old Yeller, where a faithful frontier dog has to be killed after protecting his family from a rabid wolf, rather than a bat.

I’ve learned a lot about rabies in the past week and have written an article, elsewhere in this edition, so that our readers will be better informed than I was.

Okoniewski sent me an e-mail with the lab report, saying that the rabies was found by a fluorescent antibody test on the bat’s brain. The necropsy, or animal autopsy, showed pale spots on its wings, ticks on its right ear and thorax, no fat, and an empty stomach.

Okoniewski wrote that the case illustrates how difficult it is to predict rabies. Of the two bats he looked at that day — mine and the red bat — he would have guessed, if either had rabies, based on circumstantial evidence, it would have been the red bat.

“Your bat seemed to perfectly fit the trapped-inside-a-house-for-days-but-otherwise-OK scenario,” he wrote, “whereas the red bat was curled up on a sidewalk for no apparent reason.”

This reinforces for me the need to keep looking for answers rather than accepting surface appearances; an old newspaperman once called it “having rats in your belly.” I’m grateful there’s a public-health system in place, with someone like Okoniewski, that made it happen.

Oddly, the entire experience has reduced rather than heightened my fear of bats.  Maybe because I see there is a rational course that can be pursued when confronted with rabies. Maybe it is just learning about the kindness of people who helped me but are not named here.

Maybe, too, it is thinking of my poor bat’s face, cupped in Okoniewski hand. I looked up Roethke’s poem, which ends, “For something is amiss or out of place/ When mice with wings can wear a human face.”

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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