BAT FLASH! Sensational NPR Story Threatens Bats

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 some 14,000 West Africans were being killed by Ebola, twice that many Americans died from dog attacks. 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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Merlin’s response to Chicago story about bats and rabies

Merlin’s response to Chicago story about bats and rabies
By Merlin Tuttle
6/16/16
This is an outrageously distorted story, obviously planted by those who profit most from public fear. Rabies transmission from bats to humans is extremely rare (just 1.5 Americans per year) and normally involves a bite that is detected at the time. However some people fail to seek medical advice and post-exposure vaccination, and thus are at risk of contracting rabies. When we put risks in perspective, our own beloved dogs kill approximately 20 times more Americans annually than die of rabies from bats.
                                                                                                                                                                    We’ve learned to live reasonably safely with dogs. It’s even easier to live safely with bats. Just don’t attempt to handle them, and the odds of being harmed by one are exceedingly remote. If indeed one assumes that 8 of 10 Chicago homes harbor bats as claimed, that is proof in itself that bats make safe neighbors. If they are anywhere nearly as dangerous as implied, then rabies should be vastly more common in Chicagoans.

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Merlin’s response to NPR headline on bat rabies

Merlin’s response to NPR headline on bat rabies
By Merlin Tuttle
6/3/2016

Media headlines are often unnecessarily sensational as they compete for readers/viewers. The National Public Radio headline, “Bats in the bedroom can spread rabies without an obvious bite,” is a good example. However, the story itself, as well as its portrayal of a silver-haired bat, were more balanced than most.

Bats can transmit rabies as stated, but not without a bite that is normally painful enough to be recognized at the time. The U.S. Center for Disease Control claims of rabies cases with “no definite bite history” are biased by unreliable reporting methodology. The State of Oregon thoroughly investigated the odds of rabies exposure from bats found in people’s homes relative to needs for vaccination, and their conclusions are enlightening. (more…)

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WNS Update

Over the past year we’ve received numerous inquiries about the devastating impact of white-nose syndrome (WNS) and potential cures. Merlin is now convinced that the most important help we can provide is to leave hibernating bats strictly alone, improving the odds of survival for the most genetically resistant individuals who appear already to have begun the rebuilding process.

READ MORE on our updated resource page!!

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UPDATE!  Ebola virus researchers considering alternative reservoir hypotheses, bats unlikely

Hundeds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.
Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.

Following years of headline speculation reporting bats to be the reservoir for Ebola, a review of current knowledge points elsewhere. This often fatal disease is caused by the Ebolavirus genus, which includes five species (Sudan, Zaire, Bundibugyo, Tai Forest and Reston virus). The geographical distribution of these species along separate river basins is inconsistent with a highly mobile source, such as bats, that easily cross basin borders. (more…)

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“Bats and Viruses” Book Review by Merlin Tuttle

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Bats and Viruses, edited by Lin-Fa Wang and Christopher Cowled, provides the first summary of current knowledge on how bats and viruses interact. It is an invaluable resource for all who are concerned about bats, whether from a public health or a conservation perspective. Given the rate of viral discovery it is commendably up-to-date.

 

Viral discoveries, distribution, potential for zoonoses, best practices, research biases and areas in need of further investigation are thoroughly covered.

Bats appear to serve as reservoir hosts for several of the world’s deadliest diseases. However, as noted, transmission to humans or their livestock is rare, and in most cases can be easily avoided. Advice not to eat bushmeat, handle unfamiliar animals, mix unquarantined wildlife in markets or plant fruit trees where flying foxes can be lured into close proximity to livestock is appreciated.

Numerous biases and possible misinterpretations are explained. Viral reservoirs cannot be confirmed based on mere presence of viruses or antibodies, and those found in bat guts or feces may come from insects or other foods. Also arthropods such as mosquitoes can simultaneously infect more than one species with identical zoonotic viruses, giving a false impression of transmission between incidental hosts.

(more…)

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