Prince of Wales Island bat tests positive for rabies

Officials say discovery serves as reminder to avoid sick, injured bats

Posted: Friday, September 22, 2006

A bat from Prince of Wales Island tested positive for rabies, the second recorded case of bat rabies in the state, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials.

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Health and wildlife experts are reminding people to avoid handling sick, injured or dead bats.

"This poses no new threat to humans, but rabies is a serious health threat, because it can kill you," said Kimberlee Beckmen, wildlife veterinarian for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Little is known about how far Alaska bats travel or how many bats could be infected.

"It reminds us that we have rabies and bats in Alaska, and there is that potential risk," Beckmen said. "If someone is bitten or scratched by a bat, or if their pet picks one up in their mouth, they could get rabies from it. We just don't know how common it is. Not that many animals have been tested."

Roughly 150 bats from all over Alaska have been tested for rabies since August 1973, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Only one other specimen, a little brown bat discovered in 1993 near Ketchikan, came up positive.

"I'm concerned about the people who are unaware and are putting themselves at risk," said Chava Lee, of the Gastineau Humane Society.

"The closer any of these animals get to Juneau, the greater the chance that we're going to be exposed somehow," she said. "Do I think that every single dog and cat-owner in the area should go on high alert? No. But I think that people need to know."

The rabies-infected, long-eared bat turned up in mid-July by the El Capitan Cave, near Whale Passage on the northeastern side of Prince of Wales. A team of bat researchers was setting up mist-nets at night to catch bats and tag them with transmitters. One bat was acting erratically and unable to fly. A female Oregon State University graduate student was bitten, but had previous vaccinations.

She euthanized the bat and sent it to Beckman in late August. The State Virology Lab confirmed the positive test on Aug. 31.

Prince of Wales Island is thought to have a relatively high number of bats, in part due to the excellent roosting habitat provided by the caves.

"Bats are very likely to congregate in tight quarters," said Boyd Porter, state area wildlife management biologist for Fish and Game. "They over-winter here, because of those caves.

"They're insectivores, and they will maybe bite you if you were handling them like a mouse, but they're not going to come up and try and take your blood like a vampire bat," he said. "They're nocturnal. Some people don't even know we have them. If they do see them, it's just a quick glance right at dusk when it's light enough to be able to see."

Anyone bitten or scratched by a bat should seek medical attention immediately, Boyd said. Anyone who sees a sick bat should call the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Some have identified the long-eared bat as a Keen's myotis, a rare, endangered species found in Alaska, the British Columbia coast and the Puget Sound area of Washington state.

"We still know very little about which bats occur in Alaska," said Link Olson, the curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. "This points out a really good applied example of why it's important to know. We now know why we have rabid bats in Alaska, but we aren't sure which ones they are."

The long-eared bat tested positive for a strain of rabies normally found in red bats, Beckmen said. The little brown bat in Ketchikan turned up with the silver-haired bat strain of rabies.

"The important implication for Alaska is that it implies that bats in Alaska are migratory, which the people that do research haven't been able to prove," Beckmen said. "That means that Southeast bats are coming in contact with bats outside of Alaska and picking up these viruses that aren't normally associated with their own species. How common that is, I'm not certain."

Infected bats may fly slowly or ineptly, a tell-tale sign of sickness. Bats are usually excellent flyers. Rabies-infected bats may also be thin and dehydrated, suffering from tremors or squeaking erratically in response to noise.

The prevalence of rabies in Arctic foxes on the Alaska coast is well-documented.

"When a fox comes into a village and is acting weird and bites a dog or a child, everybody knows that you have to collect that fox and send it in," Beckmen said. "People in Southeast Alaska are not aware. Most people don't know that we have bat rabies in Alaska."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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