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Bats infest family's attic

June 18, 2000|By DON WORTHINGTON

BIG POOL - Bats have been described as gentle, beneficial and necessary, but Kamela Lee of Big Pool sees things differently.

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The estimated hundreds of bats that live in the attic of her two-story wood house pose a health risk to her two children, and have largely made the house unlivable, she said.

The family of four now "eats, sleeps and plays" in the 12-foot-by-12 foot, first-floor living room where blankets and pillows are stacked side-by-side with children's toys and playpens.

The Lees have asked the Washington County Health Department and the state Department of Natural Resources for help. Each agency has offered suggestions and listened to Lee's calls, but the bats remain.

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Lee, 28, said she's frustrated and noted the bats seem to have more legislative protection than her two children.

Although the state Department of Natural Resources has approved a rare "exclusion" permit that allows the Lees to remove young, flightless bats from the attic while they are still young, Lee isn't satisfied.

The bats are protected by federal and state laws and can't be killed. Removing them is the Lees' responsibility. But Lee said she believes the state should pay for removal efforts if it wants to put an emphasis on bat preservation.

"I understand the bat has a natural habitat, but it's not my home," she said Tuesday.

The bats likely have called the house home for many years, said Dana Limpert, an ecologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Bats migrate during the winter, usually returning to the same place to roost in the spring and summer. The Lee's home fits two of the criteria Limpert said she usually finds: It's about one-quarter of a mile from water - the Potomac River is just a "couple of fields" south of the home and a creek runs along a property line - and it has a standing-seam metal roof. Bats like metal or slate roofs because the sun creates a warm place for them to dwell.

The Lees, however, knew nothing about bats' habits when they purchased the house in November.

They got their first inkling of a problem while converting a second-floor room into a nursery for the soon-to-be-born Joshua.

Lee said her husband removed several bags of bat feces or guano from the room. They thought they caught the problem in time.

The bats returned to roost in April and Lee said the problem got progressively worse.

"I lost it" Lee said of the April day she was changing 4-month-old Joshua and heard a scratching noise. She turned on the ceiling fan and a bat flew around the room.

Since then, the Lees have spent almost all of their time in the downstairs rooms. Concerned that bats might find a way into their living space, they've covered even the smallest cracks with duct tape or wallpaper borders.

The bats, which are about three inches long, need a space of about one-quarter of an inch for access, Limpert said.

Lee says bat guano is seeping from the attic into a corner of her 3-year-old son Jacob's second-floor bedroom. She's concerned her children may contract histoplasmosis, a flu-like disease caused by inhaling the dust from bird or bat droppings.

There's also the concern the bats may carry rabies. The U.S. Center for Communicable Diseases classifies bat rabies as a "minor threat" and notes rabies cannot be transmitted through contact with guano or bat urine.

The Lees' biggest expense has been outside, where they have spent $1,600 to have J.C. Ehrlich Co. of Hagerstown seal the cracks and install netting on the gable vents that allows the bats to leave, but not re-enter, the attic.

Pat Davis, district manager for J.C. Ehrlich, said Wednesday the Lee's bat problem was one of the most severe she has seen, but exclusion efforts appear to be working.

"When you are dealing with bats you have to have patience," she said.

Limpert said she advised the Lees they "won't solve the problem until they make their house tight since the colony has been their awhile," and that likely will mean a new roof.

Lee said "sealing up a 100-year-old house is virtually impossible."

The exclusion process started last week. Roof holes were filled and netting installed over the gable vents. As a result of the netting, bats circle the house in the late evening, presumably trying to return to their young. The swooping bats make a sound similar to that of rushing water, and at times make it difficult for Kamela's husband Brad, 29, to enter the house when he returns home from his second-shift job.

The number of circling bats appears to be dwindling, Davis and Kamela Lee said, and work may soon start to remove any dead bats or guano from the home.

"I have some weird sense of respect (for the bats). I'm a mother," Kamela Lee said. "But, I'm sorry, this is my home."

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