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Carlos the Bat: Up Close and Personal

I named him Carlos, after a Miami–Dade politician with a bat-crazy miserliness toward public libraries.

Our winged friend paid us a bedroom visit last week, announcing his presence in the dark with a rustle. I turned on the light to see a shadow against the wall. How had he gotten into a second-floor condo when all the windows were shut? The mystery remains.

David Rothman
David Rothman

The first night Carlos eluded capture. But the next one, I managed to chase him into an enclosed balcony. I shut the glass doors. By dawn Carlos had stopped flapping around and was peacefully asleep, hanging upside down from the wall near the ceiling--classic bat fashion. Carly and I took a good look through the doors. His body was mouse-sized, tiny for his extended wingspan of perhaps six or eight inches. Deputy Chief Shannon Williams of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria dropped by and identified Carlos as an Eastern brown bat, one of the more common bat species around the D.C. area. Carlos struck her as somewhat tired by then, and not just because bats are nocturnal and day had come. Ungraciously we hadn’t allowed enough insects to buzz around to keep our guest properly fed.

The photos show a “jarred” Carlos in Shannon Williams’s custody, awaiting what in effect will be capital punishment for the trespass--a trip down to state health department in Richmond, where his head will be sliced off and he’ll be autopsied and studied for rabies. The photo at right is blurry in places because she shook Carlos up at my request. We wanted him to open his wings at least slightly for the camera in my Nexus 10 tablet, and he obliged--thanks, Carlos. And also for going Number 2 in the jar (no bat goo smelled elsewhere, anyway). Please forgive me for calling in the Animal Welfare League rather than simply letting you fly off.

Still, karmic risk or not, I’d do the same thing all over again. A Washington Post article last spring told of a Capitol Hill photographer who underwent “stunningly expensive” and otherwise horrendous rabies shots because she let her bedroom visitor fly out the window and he or she never made it to the autopsy table. "I pretty much spent three weeks to a month on the sofa with bad TV and atrophy," Ann Hawthorne recalled for the Post. More than a few readers accused her of panicking, including Dianne Odegard of Bat Conservation International, a group quick to point out the services that Carlos’s peers offer humans and other beings. But the CDC says that on rare occasion you in fact can be asleep and then wake up and not know you’ve been bitten, and experts say that without the shots, rabies is almost always fatal. You don’t want it infecting your brain.

I’m vegetarian mainly for health reasons but not entirely--I prefer a creature-friendly diet. I applaud bat conservation. Despite the extreme infrequency of death from rabies here in the United States, however, I’d rather not take my chances. When even a remote rabies threat is so close to home--well, actually in the home--you can think of it as like climate change or the risk of nuclear annihilation. Better to play it safe, as I see it. Keep bats as pets or for pest control? Maybe if you know what you’re doing and have allowed for all the risks. But Carlos was a stranger without a proper introduction. The next one had better fly in with a CV and clearance from the state and city health departments.

So what would you have done if Carlos had visited your household?