Strengthening Safety, One Flying Fox at a Time


Recent research is proving that the balance between a volunteer’s safety and keeping the public away from harm is sometimes a fine line that need strengthening.

The study, conducted by University of Georgia doctoral student Cecilia Sanchez in conjunction with a  research organization in Australia, examined safety precautions followed by wildlife volunteers as they rehabilitate injured bats.

Wait, what? Yes, you heard that correctly, bats.

In Australia, fruit bats are commonly, and sometimes affectionately, referred to as flying foxes. These little animals play a big role in the Australian ecosystem as pollinators and seed dispersers.

While the flying foxes perform these necessary tasks, they can also potentially carry dangerous diseases such as the Australian Bat lyssavirus, which is closely related to the rabies virus and can be lethal to humans if infected.

Organizations and volunteers, known in Australia as carers, work to promote bat conservation by changing the public’s negative perception of flying foxes, as well as rehabilitating these animals if they become injured from events such as heat waves or run-ins with barbed wire fences.

All of this rehabilitation takes place at centers like the Tolga Bat Hospital, which is about an hour away from Cairns, Australia. Here bats are taken in and looked after for various reasons. For example, over 400 flying fox orphans to the hospital after their mothers were killed by tick paralysis.

The cover of Claire Hibbert's Children's Book, Bat Hospital.
The cover of Claire Hibbert’s children’s book, Bat Hospital.

These carers truly stick up for the little guy and protect the public from potential infection, but in doing so they put themselves at risk, especially if they do not follow certain safety precautions.

In Sanchez’s study, after surveying over 100 volunteers, she found that while the carers took general precautions like becoming vaccinated against rabies, the researchers concluded that there could be a better use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, arm protectants and towels or blankets.

The study found that while rehabilitators are very aware of the virus, they do not often perceive it as a threat to their health. In addition, the carers tend to determine the level of protection they utilize based on a threat associated with a particular bat.

The difficulty with this, however, is that flying foxes of all ages can be infected, and there is not one sign that alerts carers as to if the bat carries the disease. Moreover, one single exposure to lyssavirus, which can be spread via a bite, scratch, or contaminated saliva, is enough to infect a human.

The results from the survey report that 83 percent of rehabilitators say they have been bitten or scratched by a flying fox at some point in their career. And the less the amount of PPE, if any, worn by the carer, the more likely they had been bitten or scratched.

Ultimately, the study came up with two recommendations. The first is that Australia establish nation-wide safety guidelines for caring for flying foxes. And the second, that the appropriate government agencies provide compensation so that the organizations working to care for the injured bats can invest in appropriate PPE, cost being one obstacle to this endeavor.

So, has Australia heeded to any of these recommendations? Sort of.

While Sanchez says she is unaware of any national regulations having been adopted since February, the Australasian Bat Society is working to produce certain bat handling guidelines for its members to follow. These guidelines could, in turn be adopted by multiple organizations across Australia.

This is a step that not only acknowledges to studies findings, but will work to protect both the volunteers and the bats they care for.

While infection is a cause for concern among humans who are sometimes put in harm’s way, if a bat bites or scratches a carer, guidelines call for the bat to be euthanized. Thus the studies recommendations keep both groups in mind, even though one’s weight hovers just above two pounds.

The Australian volunteers work hard in these bat hospitals to care for the flying foxes and educate the public on their importance as well as other inherent characteristics. The Tolga Bat Hospital says on their website about the education, “In our experience, most people who meet a flying fox up close and personal are captivated by their intelligence, curiosity, and personality.”

Photo via the Tolga Bat Hospital's website
Photo of flying foxes via the Tolga Bat Hospital’s website

It is clear that volunteers such as the ones at the Tolga Hospital devote much energy towards the flying foxes, and Sanchez’s study, in turn recommends looking out for these carers as they look out for and rehabilitate the bats.

For more information on flying fox conservation and research, click here to visit the Australasian Bat Society’s website.

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