A Bat Infestation in the Time of COVID-19

My wife always knew that bats were going to kill us, one way or another. Me, her, our 13-year-old, our 10-year-old: a row of pale corpses laid out by workers in yellow hazmat suits, the foam of some mad chiropteran disease still spackling our lips.

Not that COVID-infected bats were ever for sale at the farmer’s market in Madison, South Dakota. Neither were masked palm civets, Chinese ring-necked pheasants, or any other kind of live wildlife. Back when we were still allowed to have such things, the markets were just small rows of familiar people, selling flowers and handmade soaps, together with last fall’s canned bread-and-butter pickles and pickled watermelon rinds—at least that was the fare until the gardens finally started to produce again. An occasional package of frozen goat meat from one of the farms was as exotic as it got.

Still, news that bats may have been the origin of the current pandemic only confirmed my wife’s certainty that bats were out to kill us. The flying abominations are common in the Midwestern United States, of course, even if they haven’t made it onto the menu. We recently had, for example, an episode—a failure of proper social distancing between ourselves and bats—when a few made their way into our attic.

“Yeah, they come out of the belfry, the Lutheran one that’s torn up for repairs,” said the Bat Guy, Wade, as he got out of his van. “A lot of calls this week. My helper, actually, fell off a roof, so if you can take hold of the ladder for me while I’m up there, it would be a help.” He pulled on a short pipe high up on the van, and a large bracket rotated on a cam and swung a ladder down for easy reach.

“The young guy landed in a bush. Little branch stabbed him right under here.” The barrel-chested man with a bat logo on his shirt and a red Keep America Great cap pinched his pectoral muscle. “Came out here.” He pointed to his shoulder. “Had to cut the branch from the bush to get him out. I thought sure he was going to die.”

“But he’s OK?”

Wade nodded while looking up the 35-foot ladder extended up the side of my house. “Yeah, but he won’t be on a roof again for a while.” He studied the roofline. “They like these metal soffits under your eaves. And them dormers, where they hit the roofline.”

I’d hired the Bat Guys, Wade and his sidelined helper, to stop Christina from selling our lovely three-story Victorian home in Madison, South Dakota, to the first taker, for any amount, or setting it afire in a masterstroke of efficiency. Ever since she awoke one morning at 4 a.m. to a bat careening through our room and back out again, she had committed to that simple solution.

Yet I, in a feat of astonishing athletic prowess that went completely unappreciated, had executed a special forces-style roll to the nearest weapon, a plastic trash bin, flipped it upside down, then knocked the bat out of the sky on his next pass. That took him to the ground, but not out of the fight, as he began to crawl under our bed, where Christina, from deep under the covers and a wall of pillows she had somehow constructed, lie screaming. Lacking clearance to use the tub, I grabbed a heavy picture frame containing a shot of my wife and me in front of a castle in Ireland. I dove to the floor, sustaining the only injury of the skirmish, a half-dollar-size rugburn on my knee, and knocked the bat unconscious.

I gave the all-clear, but my wife made only an indecipherable peeping sound from under her hastily constructed pillow fort. I went downstairs to the kitchen. We were running out of disposable plastic containers. These dollar store containers are perfect, as it turns out, for bat collection. Bats can’t launch themselves from the floor into flight. So once they are on the ground, they wander about, looking for something to hang from or climb and hang from in order to get airborne. And they walk with this horrible, stumping rhythm, using their wings like a kid who borrowed his teenage brother’s crutches.

My wife would make that discovery, too. The next night, after the kids had gone to bed, we were just starting the latest season of “Stranger Things,” when a furry brown thing started galumphing across the foyer toward the front door.

Tarantulabat!” Christina burbled—in fairness, they do resemble gigantic tarantulas when moving across the polished wood floor of your foyer.

The process is simple: 1) cover bat with disposable Tupperware bowl; 2) slide lid under bat; 3) flip and seal; 4) spend 45 minutes searching online for facilities that will test animals for rabies; 5) drive bat in middle of night to Brookings, where, as it happens, resides South Dakota’s sole rabies testing facility; 6) Return home in order to calm spouse who is googling timeshares in bat-less climes.

In truth, I was the one who needed calming after Brookings. The lab is located on the campus of South Dakota State University, and the campus is well lit and inviting across the entire hundred acres except for the back alley randomly lit by a single, buzzing floodlight aimed away from the huge steel door of The Cooler. The lab is closed at night, so The Cooler is where you’ll leave your animal specimen, neatly identified with a provided tag explaining where it was found and affirming that you are requesting rabies testing. Rule No. 1 on the protocols posted to the left of The Cooler is, “Be certain that the specimen to be tested is dead.” Rule No. 2 on the protocols is “be sure to preserve the brain when you kill the specimen.”

This was my second trip up. I’d delivered the bedroom bat the night before, and now had to deliver the one from the foyer. The night before I had not killed the bat properly. The details aren’t really necessary, so let’s just say I violated Rule No. 2.

Tonight I had come more clinically prepared, and yet less emotionally ready. Even my youth on a remote ranch 60 miles from the veterinarian’s clinical protections from the hard reality of death could not have prepared me for the horrors of The Cooler. The first night, I’d opened it, and it was empty, only a few innocuous cardboard boxes containing . . . well who knows what? You’re not about to start rummaging. Yet even empty, death clings to the place, the smell of postmortem feces and day-old blood. And there are stains that clearly no amount of scrubbing and bleach could remove.

But then there are other nights, subsequent nights. You’re a little groggy from the late-night drive, and the time before, The Cooler had fooled you into complacency. You grab the large steel lever that releases the vacuum on the door and pull. And the vision that greets you seems grafted from every horror film you weren’t allowed to watch as a kid. Small livestock, roadkill, a family pet. Their glassy-eyed stares wait on the other side of that door. Or maybe they don’t. But The Cooler is the Schrödinger’s Box of rabies: Everything within is simultaneously alive and dead. You can’t know which until you open the door.

Wade the Bat Guy hasn’t had to face The Cooler. He hasn’t even been vaccinated, despite having dealt with a rabid colony. “Just don’t let them bite you,” he explains offhandedly.

Solid advice, in all manner of circumstances, really. The Bat Guys use something called an excluder to remove bats. It’s just a white plastic funnel with smooth walls. Once the metal drip-edge is properly sealed with metal-to-wood screws to the roof, and any holes are filled with foam, the only way out for the bats is through the funnels. It’s a reverse Roach Motel: Bats check out, but they can’t check in. It’s a wonderfully humane way to transfer our bat problem to our neighbors.

Which seems fair enough, since we contracted bats from the Lutherans, and the neighbor is a Baptist minister. The bat colonies that were disturbed needed summer rentals and soon began to explore up-and-coming neighborhoods and the potential of the upper floors of our home.

When Wade climbed back down the ladder, he said he’d found the problem spot: a place where a metal soffit meets the asphalt shingles of our steep roofline. The roof is new, but the roofers hadn’t worked especially hard at those difficult transitions, and bats can fit anywhere a mouse can. In many ways, they are just flying mice. Wade said they made a nest inside the metal soffit, and when they bear young, the young ones often get confused about where the exits are. They end up wandering inside the walls until they find a way inside the structure, whereupon they use their finely-evolved skill in escaping caves. At night, temperatures fall outside, so they follow the cool air currents coming from the night air. The problem, of course, if that modern air conditioning fools them. The cool air is not coming from an exit, but from the lower floors of the home, where the people are.

In her compulsive research, my wife read a bat removal company’s claim that 80 percent of homes have bats. If so, they mostly leave people alone, and we coexist without realizing we do. The bats want a place to shelter in winter and sleep during the day. Residential buildings are cooler than most options in the largely cave-less eastern Dakotas. But peaceful coexistence just sort of falls apart when you’ve got one zipping over your head in your bedroom, like miniature dive-bombers launching a sneak attack.

Besides, rabies is endemic to the bat population, even if rare in the Dakotas. I’ve read it’s even more common in skunks and other wildlife, but those animals aren’t making low-flying passes near my pillow, either. I’d have no interest in bats except, well, for our shared living space. Bat-removal companies are prone to exaggerate, and 80 percent seems high. You’re more likely to pay promptly, I suppose, if you’re scared, or if your wife is checking real-estate law regarding bats. (Yes, you do have to disclose if you know bats are currently living in your house, if you were wondering.)

Oddly, bat-removal companies will tell you that batricide is illegal. This is another exaggeration. No one should be out killing bats in their natural habitat. That, in fact, is illegal. South Dakota specifically exempts killing them in the privacy of your home, however, and that’s what’s never mentioned in the advertising.

Relocation is obviously preferable to killing, when possible, allowing bats to continue eradicating up to 1,000 bugs per hour. Sure, my car manages that many in 10 minutes, crossing Lake County in the summer. But bats have a lower carbon footprint, and there are more bats than cars. Or people. One-fifth of all mammals are bats, so they’ve got us outnumbered.

I watch Wade, my Trump-supporting Bat Guy, eye the next dormer, trying to spot weaknesses. He loves to barbeque, and so do I, so we talked smokers and pellet-fed devices, and compared the benefits of propane over charcoal. His life slows down in winter, he said, when he’s not clinging to 14:12 roof pitches and instead can enjoy the fruits of his labor, and enjoys the opportunity to sleep in instead of driving all over eastern South Dakota at 5 a.m. For me, summers are my time to relax. I teach, and so my grill sees more use when I’m on break. When he leaves, he mentions a brand of pork rub that I’ve got to try.

So now as the sun sets out beyond the scrub brush around Lake Herman and geese move across the clear blue sky between the lakes, I ignite my grill and wait. A light breeze moves the tire swing hung from the locust tree behind me. I watch the smoke lift up beyond the rooftop, swirl through the gargantuan ponderosa pine in my front yard, and expand to airy thinness, revealing the twin spires of the Lutheran church beyond. Only two white clouds punctuate the blue, and in the space between the maple trees framing my neighbor’s backyard, three bats wheel and cavort in the fading light.

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