The Bat out of Hull

I bet the journalists at The Sun were very pleased with that pun! I’m talking about the front page news article of The Sun yesterday morning (full article found here: www.thesun.co.uk/news/9521661/toddler-bitten-by-bat-in-cot/) and thought I would explore the article in today’s post.

To summarise the article, The Sun have written of an incident whereby a bat had somehow got inside a toddler’s cot, and bitten him on the arm. The toddler was sent for a rabies jab and the bat found to be a pipistrelle after it died. Initially, when I read the headlines, I was preparing myself for an onslaught of unjustified bat hatred, but to give The Sun credit, they do, later in the article, quote a spokesperson for The Bat Conservation Trust (the UK’s bat charity) and even include some bat facts!

This is a super unusual incident and can make a good news story, but there is a real danger putting it on the front page and I shall attempt to explain why.

Bats, as many of you know, aren’t the fluffy bunnies of the animal kingdom. They flitter about at night, sometimes unintentionally startling people; some do, indeed, drink blood; and yes, there is a risk of disease with bats. In short, they are very easily disliked, and very easily demonised. And yet, you don’t need to be a zoologist to know that the natural world is complex machine of many processes: hinder one important cog, and the system begins to crumble.

Bats are one such important cog. In the UK they contribute massively to pest control – gobbling up our midges before the midges have a chance to gobble us! In the U.S., it was estimated that bats contribute 3.7 billion dollars in agricultural services a year1. Whilst it seems kind of harsh to put a value on what are living creatures in their own right, it helps many people understand the sheer importance of bats as cogs in the machine.

Problems then arise, when said important cogs get demonised by the media. You only need to remember what happened to all those stingrays after the tragic death of Steve Irwin back in 2006. Many stingrays were found mutilated as the result of a presumed ‘revenge’ attack2. And just last year, after a man was killed by a crocodile in Indonesia, a mob killed 292 crocodiles as revenge3. When animals are demonised in the media, people have been known to retaliate and damage the ecosystem. If the same were to happen to bats, the result would not just be bad for the bats and their ecosystem, the people responsible would also have to face legal proceedings for harming bats in the UK. So no one would win.

It could be said that The Sun do not demonise bats in this article as they have provided important facts and have also got the BCT’s say, but just look at the wording. The toddler lets out a “blood-curling scream”, which would draw on associations with vampires despite no UK bats drinking blood. There is repeated reference to “terror” and rabies, and even the main title references the cliché: “bat out of hell”. What’s more, you have to scroll through most of the article before you find the constructive and reassuring words of the BCT, who explain that the rabies jabs are a precaution and the child will, most probably, be fine. The reason for this exaggerated and negative language is obvious, it would sell the newspaper, but The Sun must understand that demonising such a crucial part of our ecosystem will create consequences.

Of course, the mother of the child has every right to be scared. It can’t have been a very pleasant experience, and for many, encountering a bat is frightening. They are, for most people, unknown entities shrouded in myth. But this doesn’t need to be the case. If more people in the UK and worldwide were educated about the disease risk of bats, and what to do if one enters your home, everyone would feel more confident and less scared.

For us in the UK, the rabies risk from bats is very, very small. There is a rare strain of lyssavirus (the same family of virus as the more common rabies virus) that has only yet been found in 1 of 18 species of bat in the UK. As a result, working with bats in the UK does require a rabies jab, and bats should be handled with gloves or towels as a precaution. As the article eventually points out, countless pipistrelle bats have been sent for testing and no evidence of this lyssavirus has been found to occur with them. So when it comes to UK bats, be safe, but there is very little need to panic.

If you do find a bat in your home, the best thing to do is open a window and let it find it’s way out. The bat doesn’t want to be in there as much as you don’t want it to! If, however, the bat is wounded and cannot fly, gently catch the bat with thick gloves or a tea towel and place it inside a cardboard box with airholes in. Provide the bat with an upturned bottle lid full of water as bats need to drink too. Next thing to do is to ring the Bat Conservation Trust helpline (0345 1300 228) and they will direct you to your nearest bat carer. These bat carers work tirelessly to nurse injured bats back to health! You can then arrange to drop the bat with them, or they might be able to pick it up from you, and then if the bat recovers, they’ll return to release it back near its previous environment. It’s important to remember that this is the protocol for the UK only. Other countries may have different steps and organisations, but all the relevant info should be easily accessible online. If you fancy helping out UK bats, please circulate this information with your friends and family! I’d absolutely love it if you would share it!

To conclude, I am pleased that The Sun did consult the BCT before publishing their article, and very pleased they included some bat facts. It was a rare and uncomfortable incident, but unlikely to happen again. I understand the need to make the story seem exciting and scary in order to sell more papers, but our animals and ecosystems have really suffered enough. Stories like this plant fear and potentially aggressive ideas in people’s heads, leading to tragic losses of animal life. In reality, people do not need to fear bats, and with the right information being circulated, neither bats nor humans will be harmed in the future.

Please don’t demonise our bats on the front page news – they are worth so much more to our ecosystem than that.

____________________________________________________________

  1. Boyles et al. 2011 | DOI: 10.1126/science.1201366
  2. www.theguardian.com/world/2006/sep/13/australia.topstories3
  3. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/crocodiles-revenge-killed-sorong-west-papua-indonesia-a8449491.html

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