Belfries and Bats and Viruses, Oh My!

Jessica Ebert
by Jessica Ebert

To understand this blog entry, you need to know that I lead two very different lives. By fall and winter, I inhabit the halls of Van Es, lecturing, writing, editing; but by spring and summer, I am a resort owner.

On my first birthday, my parents bought a fishing resort on the northeast corner of a gorgeous lake in Otter Tail County. I’ve spent nearly every summer of my life at the lake. My hair gets thick and wavy and wild. I’m rarely without a baseball cap, and for three straight months, I smell like a coconut. I single handedly keep the Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen company in the black. My summer friends don’t recognize me in the winter; my winter friends don’t recognize me in the summer. It’s a bizarre duality, but it’s hard for me to imagine a different life.

Because then I would have no stories to tell. Like this one...

I’ve spent a good part of this spring racing around the resort with a caulk gun looped through my cut-offs. We have bats. We’ve actually always had bats. They come swooping down and around the tops of the trees at dusk, beautiful, mysterious, stealthy, but in the last couple of years, they’ve started biting people.

My sister was the first. The scene went something like this:

Christy and her husband were visiting from Oregon. It was at the height of the London Summer Olympics, and during a lull in the swimming action, my sister walked back to her cabin to grab some trail mix. Cottage 3 sits nestled in a stand of oaks and maples about 300 feet from my parent’s place. As she walked between the trees, she felt something brush her arm.

She didn’t think anything of it until later, back in front of the TV, when she glanced down to find two beads of blood drying on her forearm.

“What could have bitten me between here and the cabin that has fangs?”

Silence.

Silence.

“Oh my gosh...I’ve been bitten by a bat!”

Beat.

Beat.

Action.

Everyone jumped to, dragging her into better light, examining her arm, calling the emergency room, racing outside with a butterfly net to try and capture the thing, quizzing me on my rabies knowledge:

“I think it’s caused by a virus...

...and isn’t there something about foaming at the mouth?”

Angry stares.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME? I’M A BACTERIOLOGIST!!”

All of this because there was a catch: My sister, at the time, was eight months pregnant.

I was obviously of little help, but over the next several hours, doctors in Oregon and Minnesota consulted experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The concern, of course, was whether or not it was safe to vaccinate a pregnant lady. We had failed to capture the bat, so we didn’t know if she had been infected, but the doctors decided that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks. It was a decision supported by medical research, although to be fair, bat-bitten pregnant women are not all that common, and the literature on vaccination among this group is relatively thin.

So we were worried, but we didn’t talk about it. We joked about our unborn Vampiress, our very own Twilight saga heroine, our Little Vamp. We waited anxiously as, a few weeks later, my brand new niece came squawking into the world kind of perfect: fangless, wingless, and without an insatiable thirst for the red sticky stuff. (It’s hard to get her to sleep at night, and instead of standing upright, she prefers to hang upside down, but we’re calling those things coincidences.)

But this was just the beginning of our bat problem. They eventually found their way into Cottage 4.

We have bats in our belfries!

(Literally, not figuratively, although Cottage 4 doesn’t actually have a bell tower, so maybe I don’t mean this literally after all.)

As a resort owner, the very last thing you want is for your guests to go around swatting at bats every night. Bats in our belfries are a lawsuit waiting to happen. This is why I carry a caulk gun wherever I go. See a crack, BAM! We currently have caulk (and steel wool and foam and about every other bat-proofing product I can find) coming out of our ears.

As an ecologist, however, I’m fascinated by bats. For mammals, they are wildly rich in species number. They are global and have mastered so many fun tricks: they echolocate, hibernate, live a stunningly long life (given some of their other biology like high heart rate, tiny body size, and metabolism), have a low rate of tumorigenesis, and, best of all, they fly! They eat agricultural pests, disperse seeds, and pollinate important rain forest plants. And, let’s face it, they have the cutest little fuzzy, unassuming faces...until they start hissing at you.

But as a microbial ecologist, I’m even more fascinated by the fact that bats are strangely perfect reservoirs for all sorts of nasty viruses, which likely include such emerging, zoonotic viruses as Nipah, Hendra, SARS, and MERS. (The latter, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, in particular, has made newsworthy headlines this spring. Here’s a taste.)

Or maybe it’s not so strange...bats are mobile, live in large colonies, and genetic evidence suggests that these winged pathogen keepers have been coevolving with their passengers for millions of years. The result: bats have evolved some kind of antiviral immunity that allows them to harbor a crazy number of viruses without getting sick (except for the viruses that cause things like rabies; these viruses still cause clinical signs of disease in bats).

Humans, however, are not so lucky. Our bodies are still babies, evolutionarily, so when we destroy roosts and encroach on bat feeding habitats, we also initiate spillover events. We get sick from the crazy number of nasty viruses our immune systems have never seen before.

Which is why I’m getting really good with a caulk gun.


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