BAT FLASH! Sensational NPR Story Threatens Bats

Update: Hopeful Progress at NPR

Merlin wants to thank all of you who contacted NPR regarding our shared concerns involving their recently sensational virus stories that threaten bat conservation progress.  He was interviewed by Michaeleen Doucleff, of NPR, for nearly an hour yesterday, February 22, 2017. He explained bat values and why people needn’t fear bats if they simply don’t attempt to handle them. The interview will be edited down to a shorter version, hopefully one that will still calm needless fear. Assuming this to be the case, we hope our Bat Fan helpers will take time to thank her. Michaeleen hopes this new interview will air within the next two weeks. Below is the original post.

 

Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
2/14/17

Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”

 

At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”

When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.

 

Continuing, we learn that, “One reason why bats are so dangerous is they have this weird ability to carry a lot of deadly viruses, in their spit, their pee, their poop, and because they fly they can spread these viruses over huge distances. So when there are bats up in the sky there could be Ebola in that poop that lands on your shoulder.” Despite millions of dollars having been invested in attempts to prove bats to be the natural reservoir for Ebola, the latest evidence points elsewhere. Furthermore, there is no evidence that spit, pee, or poop falling on a human from a flying bat has ever transmitted a disease in world history.

Merlin Tuttle photographing woolly bat habitat in a Bornean rainforest. He views such forests as goldmines for discovery, never once having contracted a virus from a bat despite his frequent close-up contact with hundreds of species.

 

I and hundreds of other bat researchers worldwide, have spent thousands of hours studying bats in all habitats where they live, sometimes surrounded by millions in caves, and not one of us has ever contracted one of the so-called emerging viruses that our government is now reportedly spending $200 million to find before they find us. Like veterinarians, we are vaccinated against rabies in case we’re occasionally bitten by an unfamiliar animal we’re handling. But that’s all we are protected against. The odds of harm for anyone who doesn’t attempt to handle bats is incalculably small.

 

The virus hunter reports having found 48 new viruses in the Bornean rainforest as though it’s a big deal. However, because only a tiny fraction of the world’s viruses have yet been discovered, new ones are easy to find anywhere, even on our own bodies. Because we only hear of the few viruses that are deadly, we tend to view them all as killers, though many may be essential to human well-being, even viruses that are related to dangerous ones.

 

Tiny woolly bats were recently discovered living in pitcher plants that, instead of eating them, feed on their droppings. The shadow just below the opening of this pitcher is caused by a roosting bat.

We’re told that the virus hunter “loves bats.” He explains that what sounds like a rapidly growing epidemic of new killer viruses is our fault. We’re cutting the forests where they live, forcing them to live near our homes. But he also reports that they are even found in school yards where kids play. “If a kid gets too close he could pick up a new virus. You can see this all over the world.” In my experience, such claims are typically made by those who profit from public fear of bats, not by those who appreciate and wish to protect bats as essential contributors to human well-being.

 

The text version of the interview is only slightly less scary. It warns that, “Over the past century, the number of new infectious diseases cropping up each year has nearly quadrupled,” not mentioning that most of these are rare and simply over looked prior to the arrival of more sophisticated medical diagnoses.

A bird’s-eye view of a woolly bat asleep in its pitcher.

Virus hunters reportedly want to “find the next pandemic virus before it finds us.” The print version does warn that bats “do a lot of good for the environment” and shouldn’t be killed. In fact, NPR finally admits that, “Some infectious disease scientists think creating a long list of viruses isn’t very helpful. They say money could be better spent on diseases we actually have now instead of trying to guess which ones might become a problem someday.

 

Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, points out that “We’re not even making vaccines for viruses that we know are threats, that are regularly killing people.” He voices an important question. “How are we going to convince people to invest money into a virus from a remote jungle for which we have no evidence that it has caused any human illness?” Perhaps this is the question that in its search for a sensational, listener-captivating story, NPR should have covered. Just why are we investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a search for new viruses in far off jungles instead of funding treatments for those that are already killing us at home?

A woolly bat {Kerivoula hardwickii} returning to its pitcher plant home in Borneo. The entrance is shaped to reflect the bat’s echolocation, guiding it’s approach like lights guide pilots at night on airport runways. This tiny 4-gram bat and a species of pitcher plant have co-evolved special adaptations that facilitate each other’s needs.

TAKE ACTION ON BEHALF OF BATS!

Nothing threatens bats more than sensational scare stories, and this is one of the worst yet. If we truly care about bats we cannot afford to allow such stories to go unchallenged. Decades of experience demonstrate that people do kill what they fear. Help us protect bats by lending your voice and telling NPR that they’ve disappointed you by presenting speculation as exaggerated fact. Together we make a difference!

What To Do
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out:

  • NPR Contact Form: select Contact an NPR Department and select NPR Management.
  • Email:
    • jgreenhalgh@npr.org, NPR Senior Editor, Jane Greenhalgh
    • mdoucleff@npr.org, NPR Science Desk Reporter, Michaeleen Doucleff
  • Twitter:
  • Facebook: Share your thoughts in a status update and tag NPR, @NPR

What To Say
Editors jobs depend on readership; feedback is valuable and they pay attention when lots of people express their concern and care. Use your own words to tell them what you think.
OR
Copy and Paste the following,

I am very disappointed to see a source I had trusted present speculation as greatly embellished fact. Bats are extremely valuable and I want to see stories about how they benefit the world and all of us humans, not this exaggerated scary stuff.

 

Below is Merlin’s personal response to the reporter of this story.

My wife and I regularly listen to NPR as an objective and reliable source of information. So as a bat researcher and conservationist, I especially looked forward to hearing your program, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, which aired February 14th on All Things Considered. To put it mildly, we were seriously disappointed by the misleading and needlessly sensational content. Much of what was said was speculation turned into “fact.”

As one who has spent more than 50 years studying and conserving bats worldwide, handling hundreds of species, and having led months-long expeditions in remote jungle campsites, I am well aware that speculated hazards were vastly overstated. Bats certainly don’t rank among the world’s most dangerous animals. In fact while media headlines focused on the 14,000 West Africans killed by Ebola, more than twice that many people worldwide died from dog-transmitted rabies without mention. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence points away from bats as Ebola reservoirs.

Not surprisingly, those who do the most to create fear of bats are also the ones who profit most from public fear. Please don’t take my comments too personally. I am aware that you were likely victimized by sources you thought you could trust. Nevertheless, at a time when both bats and rainforests are in alarming decline, we need far greater emphasis on overcoming needless fear, combined with understanding the vital importance of saving both bats and rainforests. If ever you are interested, I’d be happy to help.

 

 

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