The Flying Fox needs Friends …

Bat Rescue team from left: Sammy Ringer, Kathy Earsman, Carmel Givens and Zoe Jung

IN RECENT TIMES the beleagured flying fox has received bad press. Members of the very active Bat Rescue group on the hinterland say it’s partly to do with the historical image of the bat … the bloodsucking vampire bat of Dracula, and myths down the ages symbolising evil and witchcraft.

However, the recent tragic death of the eight-year-old boy from north Queensland from lyssavirus has further cast a shadow over the flying fox.

This is despite the fact that only three people have died from lyssavirus since 1996. During the same period more than 30 people have died from eastern brown snake bites. So is the fear of bats justified?

Hinterland Times editor, Michael Berry visited the Bat Rescue team on the Range to get another side of the story.

I HAVE TO SAY, when you get up close to a bunch of hanging bats it’s very hard not to be warmed by their cute faces and sad watery eyes.

Carmel Givens is one of the organisers of Bat Rescue. She and Sammy Ringer took me inside a large netted cage in which up to 30 bats were hanging and seemingly chattering to each other. Apart from declaring these flying foxes “gorgeous” she had a more serious message to pass on.

“If we allowed the culling of flying foxes we would literally lose our hardwood forests.”

Carmel said that flying foxes eat the fruit, nectar or flowers of various forest species and these plants rely on the bats for seed dispersal and pollination. In fact, flying foxes are the predominant pollinators of Southern Queensland’s eucalypt timbers.

When I raised the issue of the deadly Lyssavirus, the Bat Rescue ladies were quick to say there had been gross over reaction since the first person died of the virus in 1996.

Mother and daughter – Sunny and Sarah at the Maleny-based Bat Rescue Rehabilitation Centre

There are two rare diseases associated with flying foxes that have recently gained a high profile and media attention, Lyssavirus and Hendra virus. There is no evidence that either can be caught from flying foxes flying overhead or feeding or roosting in a garden or property.

In 1996 and 1998, there were two human deaths in Australia from the newly discovered Australian bat

Lyssavirus. In both cases, the victims were persons involved in the rehabilitation of flying foxes. Lyssavirus is a form of rabies found in less than 1% of healthy bats that can only be contracted when infected bat saliva comes in contact with an open wound (eg. a scratch or bite) or with human mucous membrane (eg. eyes, nose, mouth). Vaccines are currently available.

The fear of bats is not helped by those contributing to scare campaigns making people think that all flying foxes in particular are serious virus carriers.

The recent report that a young boy in north Queensland had contracted Lyssavirus from a flying fox gave Federal MP Bob Katter the opportunity to once again urge the Queensland government to allow the culling of bats.

“In 2011 we have dogs test positive. In 2012 we had horses test positive. We have continually pushed the Government for bat culling and it still hasn’t happened. This is about as serious as it gets now.”

The response from the RSPCA was more measured: “This is the third case of Lyssavirus in Australia’s history and while this does not take away the threat to a young life, bats are not the enemy and we need to continue to provide good information.”

Sammy Ringer said that Hendra has become the flavour of the decade for researchers looking for government dollars. The flying fox has been categorically fingered as the culprit. Although the flying fox carries antibodies associated with Hendra virus, respected local academic and bat expert Dr Les Hall points out that:

“Laboratory tests have not been able to replicate bat-to-horse transmission but they have been able to replicate cat-to- horse transmission of Hendra. Biosecurity Queensland do not carry out tests on rats and cats in a Hendra situation.”

Zoe Jung is in bat heaven.

There is no denying that flying foxes have decimated orchards from time to time, angering farmers who don’t understand why they are protected. Last year the Queensland Government reinstated a small number of permits so that farmers could shoot bats on their properties.

The members of Bat Rescue Inc are horrified that farmers can shoot flying foxes. They are lobbying for finer meshed netting of orchards which will protect flying foxes from getting trapped.

Much of the work of the Hinterland’s Bat Rescue group is disentangling flying foxes from netting, and barbed wire fences. They even have Energex workers on side rescuing flying foxes from power lines and contacting Bat Rescue.

Once the bats are at the Bat Rescue rehabilitation centre in Maleny they are fed and cared for, before being released back into the wild.

“I care for birds and possums too,” says Sammy Ringer. “ I love them all but none of them have the bat’s ability to creep into the heart of the carer.

They’re intelligent and inquisitive. Their anatomy is beautifully honed for their role as forest pollinators – and they have a language that ranges from, ‘I’m full, thank you and I want to sleep now’ (a sort of purring sound) to ‘I want a cuddle and I WANT IT NOW!’ (a very high pitched squeal).”

If you come across a flying fox trapped in a fence or obviously in distress, please do not touch it;
contact Bat Rescue: Ph: 5441 6200 (24 hours, 7 days) or 1300 264 625 (RSPCA Wildlife 24 hour hotline).

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