If you think bats have nothing to do with homesteading, you’re talking like a person who has never unwittingly hosted a bat camporee in your attic, as I have.
I used to love bats, back in the days when they were a rare sight and I didn’t have to fund a “bat control” line item in my monthly budget. When I was in fifth grade, my class took a field trip to Alum Rock Park and I found a velvety little bat curled up in the rafters of the girls’ bathroom. Believe it or not, it was adorable. Ever since that day I’ve carried a special love for bats and hoped I would get to see another one up close. Now fast forward to the country living/“bats in the attic” chapter of my life. After this fiasco, I now treat bats like wild animals who came into my home uninvited, destroyed it, and crawled into my bank account to chew through all my dollar bills with their vicious, tiny teeth.
While we were in the process of purchasing the Land of Silk and Honey, we briefly lived in a 100-year-old house in town that we would rent out once we settled into our new place. We were only there for a month, but we packed a lot of excitement into that time. First, we got the local welcome that is reserved for Californians with European cars: someone emptied the contents of a nasty garbage can all over our car. Another day, I was standing in the front yard and a person called me “fatty watty” while driving by. Then they pulled into their driveway at the end of the block, presumably not realizing they had lost the benefit of anonymity. I stood there for a moment trying to decide whether or not to be hurt by this and, in the end, realized it was too lazy of an insult to give much notice. You’re going to have to work those gray cells a little harder if you want to hurt my feelings, kid. It wasn’t all bad, of course. On several occasions, we pulled camp chairs onto the ample front porch to watch the display of a summer thunderstorm, reveling in the spray of warm rain, lightning so bright you wonder if it’s damaging your eyesight, and powerful cracks of thunder that made us jump and clap with delight.
During this month, we also spent the night with an uninvited guest: a little brown bat. It was an especially oppressive hot August night (we weren’t used to the humidity yet, either), so Eve and I slept in the living room. It wasn’t any cooler in there, but we could at least enjoy a fan moving the hot air around and drying the sweat off our skin while we slept. When I woke up in the morning, I opened my eyes to see a bat clinging to the ceiling right over our heads. I was pretty sure this meant a trip to the ER for rabies shots, and a cursory internet search confirmed it. Every website on earth says that if you wake up with a bat hanging over you, you should be safe and get the shots. Bats are one of the few mammals that can transmit rabies through their urine, so if it peed on you in your sleep, you could have rabies. I guess they have a light touch when it comes to biting, too, so you could potentially sleep right through a bat bite. The thing that sold me on taking the whole family in for shots is that if you do get rabies, it is 100% fatal. Once you have it and have passed the 24 hour window for getting the vaccine, there is absolutely nothing doctors or nurses can do for you. You will die. Everyone gave me grief for overreacting, but do you know what? I sincerely do not care. Do you know how much I would have obsessed about whether we were showing signs of rabies over the next six weeks? I’d rather get the shots.
Before we left for the hospital, Michael trapped the bat by gently placing a small cardboard box over it, then sliding another piece of cardboard between the box and the wall, spider-catching style. Once it was in the box, the bat squealed bloody murder, which surprised me because I thought bat sounds would be inaudible to the human ear. Then he let the bat go outside, where it did a loop around the house and landed back on our cellar door, presumably to climb right back inside as soon as we weren’t looking. I could read that bat’s mind like a Chinese takeout menu.
So this experience turned out to be a foreshadowing of sorts. A year later, we’ve settled into our own home in the country and have rented out the 100-year-old house to some questionable tenants. They called to say they were hearing scratching sounds in the attic. We said we would come take a look. They called back later that day and said bats were flying around in the house, and they had been killing these bats with blow darts.
Note to would-be landlords: go with your gut when choosing a tenant. Sure, they passed the background check, but did I feel in my gut that these were people who might own and use a blow dart gun on animals in the house? Yes. Yes, I did.
My Conversation with the Tenants
Me: So, yeah. There are definitely bats up there. We have to figure out what to do.
Tenant: I can get rid of ’em. I got my blow dart gun, plus my kids have been swinging at ’em with a tennis racket whenever they fly into the living room.
Me: Just, no. Don’t do that. I’m going to call a bat guy.
Tenant: I’m just trying to save you some money. Here’s another idea: my buddy’s got a 6-foot python. Right? (raising his eyebrows at me)
Tenant: We let that thing loose in the attic, boom! Bat problem solved. Know what I mean?
What I wanted to say: Yeah, I think I know what you mean. That’s illegal, you hillbilly moron. And have you thought about how you will get the python back out of the attic once it’s stuffed itself with hundreds of bats? Hmm? Oh god, why did I let you in my house?
What I actually said: Do not unleash a python in the attic. I’m begging you.
So we did things my way, which was to hire a licensed bat professional to do a full inspection and tell us how to fix this problem. Turns out that in addition to wildlife remediation, this man specialized in delivering bad news I didn’t want to hear.
Bad News, Part One: There weren’t just a few bats hanging out in the attic; we had a full-fledged colony of 200–300 bats up there.
Bad News, Part Two: The bats are protected by law, so you can’t exterminate or harm them at all. [By the way, are these bats endangered or not? Why are they protected? I’ve looked it up several times and I get conflicting information every time.] Of course I’m in favor of species conservation in general, and naturally we don’t want to hurt bats. But I think an exception could be made when they are ruining your life. Legally, all you can do is install these wimpy one-way exit tubes in the roof and siding of the house that will allow the bats to leave but not get back in (supposedly). According to the bat guy, they will head outside as soon as they need food and water, which should be very soon. And then they won’t be able to get back in and they’ll have to leave. At this point, the bat guy handed me a stack of his business cards to distribute to my neighbors because as soon as the bats leave my attic, the neighbors will need a bat guy, if I know what he’s saying, wink wink. That raised a red flag for me but I have to admit, he’s got a winning business model there.
Bad News, Part Three: The bats have decided not to leave any time soon. Apparently they thought the exit tubes were a soft suggestion. It’s getting chilly, so they’re going to hunker down for the winter (read: for the next eight months), so I can expect them to continue cohabitating with my tenants until May.
Bad News, Part Four: Even when the bats finally exit the attic in the spring, they will keep trying to return to their roost (my attic) for a while because bats are extremely territorial and they apparently lack the ability to get over it and move on with their lives.
Bad News, Part Five: Bats can squeeze into a space as small as ¼” by dislocating their bones. They can do this with all the bones in their body except the skull. So any little crack that opens up will be a big old welcome sign inviting them back in.
Bad News, Part Six: The bats will be chewing up the insulation and defecating all over the attic for the remainder of the winter. The pee smell will seep down into the walls of the tenants’ living space. Delicious.
A Parting Bit of Bad News: The bat guy’s bill was $800. That’s eight one hundred dollar bills. Like, almost a thousand dollars. $800 to gently invite the bats to leave, an invitation they may completely turn down and there’s nothing you can do about it. I began secretly hoping the tenants would unleash the python without telling me.
So we scrounged up $800 and paid the bat guy to install his magical exit tubes. Then we waited. We knew not to expect any movement for the rest of the winter, but as soon as spring came we called the tenants regularly to ask if they’d seen any bats flying out of the house in the evenings. They said they did, and we were momentarily encouraged. But a few weeks later, the tenants called to say they still heard the bats scratching around upstairs. We told them to be patient because there were hundreds of bats and every time one left, it couldn’t get back in, so the colony was dwindling one by one. Eventually, they would all be out (said two naïve landlords). A muddy spring turned to a sweltering summer, and the bats were still around. The tenants complained that the walls smelled like ammonia on hot days. How they distinguished this smell from the stench emanating from their piles of trash in the rest of the house is a subject for another discussion. In mid-summer I called the bat guy to check on the situation. He said his hands were tied for at least three more weeks because it was the middle of bat breeding season and we weren’t allowed to disturb them during that time. I said that seems like the perfect time to disturb them and that we should get in there and nip things in the bud before they got busy. He didn’t agree because, regulations. I would like to see a copy of these regulations.
After a year and a half of waiting for the bats to leave and the bat guy declining to come take a look because of regulations, we hired another bat guy. And yeah, I’ll say it: a better bat guy. This dude said that the last guy had installed the exit tubes with their little doors open, essentially creating a bat superhighway through our attic. I suddenly wanted each of my 800 dollars back. I tried to negotiate a refund from the original bat guy, but he said he thought he saw some loose shingles last time he was up on our roof, which voids his guarantee. I also tried to get my homeowner’s insurance to pay for it, but they said my policy didn’t cover bat damage unless there were signs of forced entry. I will wait for you to stop laughing and/or scratching your head on that one. I explained that bats didn’t need to force entry because of the ¼” thing but they said their hands were tied because, regulations.
With the help of the new, better bat guy and a brand new roof (which cost a lot more than $800, I can tell you), we eventually got rid of the bats for good. It’s been many years and no sign of their return. Those original tenants were evicted somewhere along the way, which dropped my blood pressure about 80 points. I keep up with them by occasionally reading about their exploits in the newspaper, under the “people sentenced to jail this week” section. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, but I wish there were one. We all got a slew of rabies shots, we forked over thousands for a new roof, we had to evict tenants that surely must have been some kind of karmic retribution. I suppose the upside is that now we have a benchmark that makes any rough time seem not so bad in comparison. “At least we don’t have a colony of bats living with those awful tenants and the threat of a runaway python hanging over our heads,” we can always say. These are important things to hold on to.