By Mark Sconce
A recent New Yorker magazine memo from the Dept. of Versifying caught my eye. It features an Army physician/poet on his way to New York to treat the sick and dying. En route, he recalls poet Walt Whitman on his way to Washington, D.C. to care for the sick and wounded during the Civil War. Walt was blunt: “Such was war. It was not a quadrille in a ballroom. The real war will never get into the books.”
The Army doctor/poet records his observations on the corona virus in verse:
“New York is a ghost town
where even the birds took the last train to Jersey
and the night rises blue black as an alley cat . . .”
“When I left home,” he continues, “I thought about what I would do when I arrived in New York: treat the sick and pray for the souls of the dead and wonder about 100 years from now, when all of this is just a fairy tale about death becoming a person who takes the form of a bat to fly across the world: the next generations’ story of the witch that eats children.” In short, a bat out of hell . . .
Indeed, bats are much in the news after reports of the virus originating in a Chinese wet market in Wuhan where bats were being sold as food. But before our gorge rises, let’s step back and review the facts.
Like cows, pigs and goats, the bat is a mammal whose meat has crossed the palates of men and women for thousands of years. And not just in China. Hunters in Southeast Asia, India, parts of Africa and even Australia (put another bat on the barbie) bring to market about 13% of all bat species—a group numbering well over 1,300 or about 25% of all mammals. Unlike domestic animals, the bat is as wild as the squirrel, opossum or rat—all of which are sources of food as many Peace Corps Volunteers can tell you.
In Chinese culture the bat is always linked with good luck, good fortune, and happiness. Admiration for bats is ancient and, just to make the point, the word for bat is ‘fu,’ pronounced the same as the word for good fortune.
In Western culture the bat is often linked with darkness, death, and the underworld. Batman notwithstanding, the bat has a spooky, sinister image, particularly the vampire bat, whose hog nose, sharp fangs, and noticeable ears can often be witnessed on Halloween night. Fact is, bats are afraid of humans, especially so since we’re encroaching on their habitats by building more roads and mines, cutting down trees, hunting wildlife, and trading them in livestock markets. Bush meat is the name given to wildlife kills including monkeys, snakes, rodents, and bats. In burgeoning populations like China’s, food sources are of utmost importance—imagine acquiring a taste for Labradors!
A million years of evolution have conferred on bats some amazing aspects and abilities. That he’s the only mammal that can fly certainly is one of them, followed closely by echolocation which allows bats to “see” using sound. This ability inspired the submarine invention we know as sonar. “Blind as a bat” is a myth because bats can see perfectly well and can hunt at times by eyesight only.
Aspects like sleeping upside down in bat caves may be merely an issue of “headroom,” but I will defer to D. H. Lawrence who versified his revulsion.
Bats! Hanging upside down like disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep. Bats!
While birds and bees typically come to mind when considering pollination, the bat plays a huge role in the process. Over 500 plant species depend on bats to pollinate their flowers, including those of mango, banana, and guava. And don’t forget the agave whose root is at the root of tequila.
Unfortunately, evolution has also made the bat resistant to thousands of viruses, some of them, like rabies, able to be transmitted to other mammals. Flight makes the bat nearly ubiquitous, and its urine, saliva, and guano are disseminated on every continent. Bat guano may be a great fertilizer (only $5 per 1 ½ cubic feet), but it can also harbor and spread viruses, the worst being zoonotic, i.e., able to hop or spill over to humans, sometimes through an animal intermediary, e.g., SARS got to humans through the Asian palm civet; Ebola via gorillas and chimpanzees. Chinese scientists have yet to determine the mammal coronavirus uses, but it may be a peculiar animal called a pangolin that looks like a small scaly anteater and is considered the most trafficked endangered animal in the world. Whichever intermediary the virus prefers, it remains extremely virulent and deadly upon making the final jump into humans.
In his landmark book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond points out that most diseases afflicting mankind derive from animals. Early farmers protected their livestock at night by bringing them indoors. The snorts, the coughs, the froth, the urine, et al., assured transmission—zoonotic transmission. Survivors became resistant to many maladies and passed on their immunities to their kids.
Bats harbor a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than all other mammals. Imagine being the unwitting carrier of Ebola, rabies, Marburg, SARS, and the various strains of corona!
Meanwhile, like them or not, we must live with the bat because the bat helps us live (or not). Me? I can barely account for the ones in my belfry.
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