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Again and again I ask myself why people are afraid of bats. Adult humans weigh a hundred times more than the largest fruit bats. In fact of the fourteen hundred species of bat, the only bat known to deliberately harm people is the (highly social & altruistic) vampire bat (and, despite all of the hype, such incidents don’t seem to be particularly common).

Bats legitimately do harbor more sorts of viruses than other mammals and many of these viruses have proven to be zoonotic, yet as to whether they spread disease (or even are really the ultimate source of Ebola or Covid 19), the evidence is more exiguous. There are plenty of experts who push back against these claims. My whole article from the other day might have been contributing to anti-bat hysteria (which would truly sadden me since I love bats for their own sake…and for the many valuable roles they play in ecosystems across the entire world).

For what it is worth I don’t think that we fear bats out of some instinctual virus phobia (the way we instinctively recoil from snakes or spiders). The most cursory look at our culture reveals that Americans are not afraid of sugary foods or bad driving, yet these things are stupendous killers, wiping out more lives in a year than bat borne diseases have in all of history. But as Halloween rolls around we will see people shuddering at batfaces and then they trundle their kids out onto the street to collect candy!

Hmmm…

My opinion is that bats are frightening because they are so closely adjacent to multiple things that people do fear. Bats are nocturnal (except for the Azores noctule, which we will exempt from this essay), and our fear of the dark is a primal part of all of us. Bats live in caves, treacherous landscapes of jagged rock, unseen chasms, and deep dark pools. When not at home in caves, bats are up in the night sky, another place where humans have only recently been able to go (and even with all of our technology it is still dangerous and problematic). Perhaps most damning of all, bats are close relatives to us primates and so many of our familiar features are right there in chiropteran physiology, but weirdly distorted in unsettling ways. Bats fall into the uncanny valley: they are sufficiently human to activate some of our social instincts, but then they are patently not human.

This is all speculation. Today’s entire post is an opinion about why people are afraid of bats and fear is hard to properly understand. We have no definitive answers and perhaps such answers are never forthcoming (particularly if fear of bats is based on a grab bag of adjacent fears with a soupcon of germophobia dusted on top)

The bigger point to all of this is that our fear of bats hurts bats..and it hurts us too. As I was writing this little essay, I found example after example of people overreacting to covid/rabies/ebola/SARS and killing bats in exaggerated wanton fashion. I will spare you the grisly details, but suffice to say, it was NOT the bats who came off as terrifying cruel monsters in these stories. People destroy bat habitats and root out bat colonies and kill the poor animals with poison, fire, and brute force, and why? The missing bats leave swarms of dangerous insects, orchards of unpollinated plants, and non-forests of unplanted seeds.

(This is to say nothing of the even greater–yet unintentional–killing of bats caused by habitat loss, climate change, and introduction of terrible invasive diseases which do kill bats such as white nose syndrome, a dreadful fungal scourge).

Batman decided to become BATman because he was afraid of bats. By becoming a bat he mastered that fear and turned it to productive ends (in the movies and comicbooks I mean, if we saw an actual billionaire dressing all dramatically and behaving crazy we would…uh…probably elect him as president). I wish we could learn a lesson from the Dark Knight and look into our hearts and see that bats are not the problem: fear and ignorance are the problems. If we can conquer those things, we can understand & defeat the diseases, fix the world, save ourselves and save the bats and be true heroes, not some made-up comic book nonsense. But I also worry that we are not currently doing well in our battles against fear and ignorance.

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