The Wildlife Society’s Misleading Bat Story about Bats & Disease – A Call to Action! 9/16/15

A grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) in Australia.
A comparison of the striking difference between good vs bad portrayal of flying foxes.

Case Closed–No  further action needed. 

Subsequent stories about bats have been greatly improved, mostly positive. Thank you Bat Fans for your participation.

May 24, 2016 

A Malayan flying fox, a large fruit bat, is on display at the USDA’s Farmers Market as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Pollinator Week Festival in Washington, D.C. earlier this summer. A recent study shows that this and other bat species known to spread diseases such as the Nipah Virus to humans have a higher likelihood of spreading diseases between species compared to rodents. Image Credit: USDA, licensed by cc 2.0
Image credit: USDA

 

 

 

Please join Merlin in protesting misleading claims of bats as major spreaders of disease by writing even a few simple sentences to the editor nancy.sasavage@wildlife.org responsible for the following story. Fearful people kill bats! Your voice can make a big difference.

Many of us who care about bats were dismayed to see Dana Kobilinsky’s story, Bats Spread Viruses Across Species, featured in The Wildlife Society’s Conservation News on September 9, 2015. Beginning with a needlessly sinister photo of a flying fox, it proceeds to present unproven supposition as fact, asserting bats to be dangerous spreaders of disease. This is a contradiction of the Society’s stated dedication to scientific understanding and conservation of wildlife. Though the story does say don’t kill bats, people do kill what they fear. Please share your concern now!

 

 Response to Exaggerated Disease Warnings Featured by the Wildlife Society
By Merlin Tuttle
9/16/2015

I was quite surprised to find Dana Kobilinsky’s story, Bats Spread Viruses Across Species, posted by The Wildlife Society on September 9, 2015. This story runs in stark contrast to your organization’s longstanding dedication to scientific understanding and conservation of wildlife, including bats.

Still unproven supposition is presented as fact, and it is assumed without supporting evidence that spreading viruses across species is always bad.

Bats in fact have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans. Despite intense efforts to link Ebola to bats, “No clear case of bat-to-human transmission of Ebola has ever been proven.” (G. Vogal,Science, 2014, vol. 344:140). Nevertheless public health virologists have so frequently speculated that this and other so-called “emerging diseases” are of bat origin, that unproven hypotheses are becoming entrenched as “fact” in the public mind.

Throughout most of human history bats and people have shared dwellings, from caves to thatched huts. Only recently have we begun living mostly in modern buildings which exclude bats. With such long association, one might logically expect bats and people to have co-evolved unusual resistance to each other’s pathogens, a possibility that hasn’t been investigated.

Those attempting to scare us can’t explain how millions of people still hunt and eat bats every year without documented harm or how colonies of hundreds of thousands of bats that live in cities from Africa to America continue to have an impeccable safety record. It is even more difficult to explain how hundreds of bat researchers like me have survived close, career-long association with bats on every continent where they occur, often surrounded by millions at a time in caves, without a single one of us contracting one of these so-called “emerging diseases.” Like veterinarians, we are vaccinated against rabies to protect against defensive bites from animals we handle, but that has been our only protection.

Put in perspective, mortality from our much beloved dogs dwarfs any associated with bats (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs373/en/). However most of us have had sufficient experience to understand that we are unlikely to be harmed by a dog, and we’d be irate if anyone distorted the facts about dogs as is done for bats.

As documented in Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans’ new book, Evolving Ourselves (Penguin Group/Random House, 2015), our current understanding of viruses is miniscule. More than 99 percent of viruses remain undiscovered by scientists, and despite our inordinate fears, most are likely benign or even essential to our very survival. Failure to understand the beneficial ones may one day be our undoing. Yet as Enriquez and Gullans point out, “it is hard to get grants to study the nice viruses.” It is far easier to scare us into funding studies of the bad ones, and given the already widespread superstitious fear of bats and the unknown it isn’t surprising that those who profit from our fears love to pick on bat/virus combinations!

When even a few new viruses are discovered in bats they are typically announced as though bats are therefore uniquely dangerous. Lots of new viruses can be found wherever we look. Enriquez and Gullans cite a 2013 study in which 478 relatively abundant viruses were discovered in a single human being, most of them new to science.

It is easy to become prematurely frightened when we are told that a newly discovered virus from a bat is related to deadly ones like SARS and Ebola. However, given the infancy of our knowledge of virus taxonomy, such claims can be highly misleading. All life is related to some extent. We don’t confuse ourselves with chimpanzees just because our genomes are 96 percent identical. And we don’t even know that viral relationships are always bad. Some may even help convey resistance to those we fear.

Most viruses are likely benign, and many may be essential to our very survival. Unfortunately it is far easier to obtain grants hypothesizing already feared and misunderstood animals like bats as potentially dangerous harbingers of rare, but scary viruses like SARS and Ebola. And these are made even more sinister by referring to them as “emerging pathogens,” though available evidence suggests they’ve been here for a very long time, simply unnoticed due to being rare and limited to remote areas.

Recent speculation by public health virologists has netted millions of dollars in grants to search for deadly viruses in bats, and given that viruses are exceedingly abundant in all living creatures, they’ve been easy to find. However, the same premature speculation that sells media readership and gains big research grants today, may also damage the credibility of a whole generation of much needed public health virologists. Diverted funds are urgently needed to fight far more serious, largely preventable killers like cancer (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/) and childhood obesity (http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/obesity/en/).

For me, well documented experience trumps speculation. It’s time for the Wildlife Society, as a much admired, science-based guardian of wildlife, to take a stand in defense of far too carelessly maligned bats, and I would be happy to help.

I do recognize that Kobilinsky warns that bats are valuable and shouldn’t be killed. However, as one who has engaged in extensive world travel on behalf of bats for more than 55 years, I have repeatedly met people who have exterminated large bat colonies due to unfounded fear of disease. And no group of mammals is more uniformly beneficial nor persecuted and endangered than the flying foxes, represented in Kobilinsky’s story by an exceptionally sinister photo, which itself will counter a thousand words.

9 thoughts on “The Wildlife Society’s Misleading Bat Story about Bats & Disease – A Call to Action! 9/16/15

  1. Merlin and Paula,

    This is the commentary the TEXAS POLLINATOR POWWOW posted on its FB page in response to your request for support:

    THIS IS VERY, VERY, IMPORTANT! PLEASE SHOW YOUR SUPPORT!

    On September 9, 2015, The Wildlife Society published a story that lead with the following shocking statement (accompanied by a deliberately bad portrait shot), COMPLETELY unfounded in truth:

    “Bats are responsible for spreading harmful emerging diseases such as Ebola, SARS and the Nipah Virus to humans, making them natural reservoirs of infection.” http://wildlife.org/bats-spread-viruses-across-species/

    The article continued to its conclusion, but without a shred of evidence supported by any research to justify the opening statement. That statement was meant to be highly inflammatory and provocative, presumably in order to grab the reader’s attention. Quite unfortunately, and MOST alarmingly, this abhorrent fiction, stated as fact, may well result in a universal backlash against one of our most valuable and beloved pollinators as other unwise journalists mindlessly regurgitate this story repeatedly, or the un-discerning and reactionary take adverse action against these sentient warm-blooded animals who struggle against increasing odds to serve mankind.

    TWS has been contacted by learned professionals in the bat biology field, and incomprehensibly have not retracted the article or allowed for a published rebuttal to date. Please join with us and with Dr. Merlin Tuttle in making your voices heard at our beloved Wildlife Society. And fully expect to hear more about this issue on Saturday at the Texas Pollinator PowWow in Kerrville.

    https://www.facebook.com/texaspollinatorpowwow

  2. How unnecessarily alarming! Bats are VERY rarely responsible for spreading disease, as long as you’re not killing at eating them! Good grief! This kind of fear-mongering couldn’t come at a worse time for our threatened bats. How about a story that emphasizes how clean, playful and intelligent they are? About what doting parents they are? About how VITAL they are to ecosystems around the world? Please don’t spread fear– we don’t need people killing bats for no reason.

  3. Education is FREE. Please educate yourself before speaking as an “authority” on any cause. There is already too much fear cultivated in our society and it is nothing less than irresponsible to spread fear through your ignorance!!

  4. I worked as a vet in a bat hospital for two months in close contact with sick bats, without so much as getting a cold. I never got infected by animals in all my years of close contact with them. When you have an irrational fear of a species, get therapy or education, but don’t go blabbing they spread diseases to humans with the intention of starting a witch hunt and promoting their destruction. You should be more afraid of the diseases you can get from your fellow human beings. True, during evolution many viruses adapted to other species but today the worst diseases you can get come from your fellow human beings.
    I agree with previous comments that you need education. I will give you something to think about. What happens when you kill enough fruit-eating bats? There will be a huge shortage of food for humans because those bats pollinate plants. No bats, no rainforest, no agave plants, etc. Kill enough insect-eating bats and life will become unbearable for us because of the insect explosion. You just have no idea of the amount of insects bats eat!
    THINK, read, get informed and THINK again before you write.

  5. Every beautiful creature that inhabits this Earth has a purpose for it’s existence!! All creatures co-exist to create harmony in nature. The ONLY creature who DOES NOT create harmony in nature is the HUMAN BEING!! Creating fear of a beautiful creature so people destroy it is PURE EVIL ON YOUR PART!!!!!

  6. Love the work you are doing with bats! In the East here, I saw only a few bats this summer. Between the lack of rain and white nose syndrome, it’s been a bad year for these friends.

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