A recent article from the Press Enterprise a Southern California newspaper presented once again the prevalent urban legend that bats attack people's hair.
A young girl in Lake Elsinore encountered a bat that was apparently sick due to an infection with rabies. This unfortunate incident was surely shocking for the unfortunate girl involved and her family. Hopefully the girl is recovering quickly from the event which is likely due to the immediate treatment she received. The remainder of this post does not argue that being bitten by any animal is not a potentially dangerous thing nor does it try to take away from what the poor-child involved experienced. However what it does focus on is the way the media responded. Reading responses to the article it was apparent that people were very concerned about the incident occurring again. Worrying about getting bit by a bat is unfounded as being bitten by a dog is exponentially more likely. This thought lead me to question if a rabid dog bit a 3 year old girl it would also appear in the news paper.
However, the fact remains that the article presented and focused on a reoccurring myth...bats attacking hair. This myth is what I would like to address. It simply is not true that bats 'go for' (i.e. seek out and attack) people's hair just as much as bats are not blind. It is however interesting that this is such a pervasive idea that it is even included in the header of the Press Enterprise article.
A prominent bat biologist Dr. Gary McCracken deals with this myth on the Bat Conservation International web page located here. I rather like Dr. McCracken's discussion of his own work with bats that has involved close contact during which he has not experienced bats 'attacking his hair'. Similarly, my dissertation research has all occurred in a cave that is FULL of bats and I have yet to have a bat become entangled in my medium length hair (i.e. longer than most men's hair). What is most likely is that bats near homes may be foraging at street lights for insects and in their focused hunting fail to 'correct' for larger non-food objects like humans that may be walking between them and their dinner. An additional tidbit (another myth) is the 'painful' nature of the rabies exposure vaccine. This concern is unwarranted as the vaccine is now less painful than vaccines for tetanus. Interesting is the Center for Disease Control (CDC) web site's reference to rabies exposure as a medical 'urgency' but not 'emergency'. Why is this? Generally because the shots are only administered after careful consultation with a doctor because you have a time-window within which to decide what to do.
A well-made site hosted by the CDC for kids to learn more about rabies is hosted here.Meanwhile, I am interested to learn more about how people reacted to this story and their own experiences relating to the myth that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon: that bats attack people's hair!