A recent column mentioned Charles Schwartz’s book, “The Mammals of Missouri,” as a reference I often refer to. It was originally published in 1959, but my copy was a third printing from 1968. I bought it at the University Book Store for a mammology course I took in 1969. It’s still a wonderful and useful book, filled with information about the animals it describes and is richly illustrated with detailed pen-and-ink drawings by Schwartz himself. Most of the information in it is timeless, but a few important details have changed over the past 58 years. Some of the animals that were relatively common then are far from common today. Big brown bats are still pretty common, but we have a more accurate understanding of the prevalence of rabies in them today.
Schwartz said that big brown bats were not known to carry rabies. He didn’t say they don’t carry the disease. An alert reader forwarded information to me about a study of rabies in big brown bats that spanned the years from 1993–2000. Of 21,000 bats submitted for testing during that time, 6 percent tested positive for rabies. That’s not a high percentage, and it’s likely that the average bat you encounter is an entirely beneficial and healthy individual that doesn’t carry the disease. It’s too high a percentage to ignore, though, when considering the risk of exposure to a potentially fatal disease. It means that any bat should be handled with extreme care if it must be handled at all. Accurate, science-based information that changes our perceptions and understanding is a good thing, and I appreciate that I was brought up to date on the possibility of rabies in that common bat.
I remember a bat story that illustrates the point. Bats occasionally got into the church we attended when we were first married. I found it somewhat amusing when the organist would hit a particularly powerful chord that disturbed a poor little bat’s rest high up among the rafters in the fairly dark ceiling of the sanctuary. Away the bat would go, zooming around and distracting people until things quieted down again. Another time in the same church, a bat ended up hanging on a curtain in a smaller room that was used for an adult Sunday school class. I caught it by draping a towel over it and took it outside to release it. It promptly flew down the side of the church and right back in an open window in the same room. Another man easily caught it bare-handed, but the bat nipped his hand in the process. The windows were closed before he released it outside again, but we didn’t make much progress on our lesson that morning. Unfortunately, an animal’s brain must be examined to determine if it has rabies, but the bat was gone and could not be tested. Even though it was unlikely that the bat carried rabies, the man had to take a series of rabies shots just to be on the safe side.
I finally finished reading the 1882 “History of Floyd County,” a truly old reference we found stored up at my parents-in-law’s farm. I was amazed at the level of understanding that the learned writers of the various chapters on natural history already had by that time. The chapters on geology, archaeology and biology (plants and animals) were most interesting. Most of the information would still be considered accurate yet today. They described a land that had just been settled. Many people alive at that time still remembered the land as it was when they homesteaded there along the Cedar River. The changes I noted between that time and now were not so much in scientific understanding, but in how people valued what they saw and were doing. The book documented when the last bison, elk, wolves and bears were killed in the area. Cougars and “wildcats” were once there, too. Prairie chickens were still around, but were seen to be disappearing. There was even a hint of sadness that no one would ever again see the multicolored blooms of prairie phlox stretching off to the horizon at this time of year. Any lingering sadness at the loss of natural beauty was overcome with pride at what the “industrious pioneers” had accomplished in taming a wild land in less than 30 years. It would be another 37 years before Dr. Ada Hayden asked, “Why not preserve now at small cost what cannot be replaced at any cost?” Even by 1919, there was precious little left of the original Iowa, and there’s far less now. In this most ecologically altered of any state, what is left of our natural heritage is precious beyond any price. I think that includes even the less appreciated parts of it — like seven species of little flying mammals called bats.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.