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RALEIGH, NC - More bats are making themselves at home in local living rooms.
So far this year, Wake County has sent at least 51 bats found in homes to a state lab to be tested for rabies - the most in at least five years.
That's about 55 percent more than the number tested all of last year, when the county investigated 33 lab-worthy bat cases.
Spring and summer are generally pretty batty. It's when bats are coming out of hibernation. And this time of year, they're ready to reproduce.
"They're finding little places to nest," said Andre Pierce, director of the environmental health and safety division in Wake. "They're finding places to raise a baby."
But the number of bats in homes in May and June was astronomical.
In the past two months, 46 bat reports warranted trips to the lab because humans were exposed. That's up from just six during the same period last year.
The reason for the spike is twofold, wildlife experts and exterminators say.
First, people are more aware of bats and the hazards they may bring. Bats are known to carry rabies, which can affect the central nervous system in humans. If bitten by an infected bat, people might have to receive a series of rabies vaccinations.
Also, news of a fungal disease that can kill bats has spread since its discovery in New York in 2006. White-nose syndrome, which often leaves a white fungus on bats' bodies and can cause them to act erratically, can be fatal.
Last winter, officials found diseased bats in four North Carolina counties: Yancey, Avery, McDowell and Transylvania.
Even though sick bats haven't been found in the Triangle, more and more people are hearing about them, and therefore more people might be reporting them, said Kendrick Weeks, mountain wildlife diversity supervisor for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Another factor in the increase: the arrival of free-tailed bats, a species that has small tails. Those bats used to live mainly along the coast, but they've made their way west.
"Fifteen years ago, we never saw this bat here," said Bob Jankowski, operator of Critter Control, a local wildlife extermination company.
Brown bats are the most common ones in the Triangle.
The bat calls are keeping the county's three nurses with the communicable disease program busy, said Ruth Lassiter, the program director.
Her office talks to people who find bats in their homes and often directs them to their family doctors if bat exposure is suspected.
If humans are exposed to a bat - or even if there's a possibility of exposure - the bat goes to a state lab for tests.
But the chances of getting rabies from a bat are slim. About 4 percent of bats that are tested have the disease, said Carl Williams, the state's public health veterinarian.
People are much more likely to get rabies from a raccoon bite, Williams said.
Even so, officials say they err on the side of caution. A person could get bitten by a bat while sleeping and never realize it, they say.
"If you get bit by a raccoon, you know it," Williams said. "If you get bit by a bat, you may not know it."
Raleigh, which has its own animal-control officer, has also seen an increase in bat calls, Animal Control Supervisor Tracey Alford said.
Bats play an important role in the ecosystem.
They can eat 500 to 1,000 mosquitoes and other insects per hour, Jankowski said.
"These guys are making sure we can have our barbecues outside," he said.
Credits: By Sarah Nagem - TheCaryNews.com