Shelter Island’s animal control officer helps handle the critters if they’re in your home

In the middle of the night, the Shelter Island homeowner knew immediately something was wrong. Soon, she discovered a strange creature in her house. What to do? She knew the answer: Place a call to Officer Jenny Zahler, the island’s animal control officer.

“She was freaked out, but smart,” said Ms. Zahler, who works as part of the island’s police department. “Most people say, ‘It was so late, I didn’t think I should call,’ but this is my job, to answer your call.”

At the woman’s residence, a charming old house in Shelter Island Heights, Ms. Zahler said it wasn’t long before she found a brown bat, hanging upside down on a curtain in the kitchen. Bats spend a lot of time upside down, sleeping, feeding and raising their young. Bats are mammals (the only ones that can fly) and prefer to be upside down. That’s because their wings are not as strong as birds’ and it’s much easier for them to gain flight by dropping for takeoff. According to the National Park Service, bats expend an enormous amount of energy flying and feeding, mostly on insects.

Ms. Zahler said the bat had sought access to the house — “They’re small and can squeeze through really tight spaces” — to hibernate.

On the North Fork, bats (scientific name: Chiroptera) can be seen at dawn and dusk through spring summer and fall, flying just above the tree line and over creeks and streams where insects hover. Some species of bats, according to the National Library of Medicine, can reach in-flight speeds of 100 mph. 

When the cold weather drives insects away, bats will either hibernate to conserve energy or follow the bugs to warmer climes. When they hibernate, they enter into what scientists call a “torpor,” which lowers metabolism so the animal doesn’t require food for survival. During hibernation, however, bats can be awakened by various events.

Ms. Zahler thought this middle-of-the-night brown bat was awakened because of this winter’s unusually warm weather. Thinking it might be spring, the creature came out of its torpor and began to fly, finally settling on the kitchen curtains as a good place to hang out.

Ms. Zahler captured the bat and, since the ferries were shut down for the night, placed it in a box. The next morning, she took it to the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, where it will be housed for the remainder of winter then released in the spring.

How did she capture the bat? “Magic,” she said with a smile, adding, “I have a net.”

In our culture, bats are seen in different ways, by some as beyond creepy (Dracula) and by others as a force for good (Batman). But most people are in the former camp, seeing the tiny creatures as bloodsuckers out and about at night, carriers of disease and that weird hanging-upside-down thing. In fact, there is no such thing as a blood-sucking bat, although one species found in Central and South America will bite an animal — very rarely a human — and then lap up a bit of the blood.

Bats do, however, carry several infectious diseases. According to the National Library of Medicine they “are natural reservoir hosts and sources of infection of several micro-organisms, many of which cause severe human diseases. Because of contact between bats and other animals, including humans, the possibility exists for additional interspecies transmissions and resulting disease outbreaks.” That’s one reason scientists suspect the initial outbreak of COVID-19 may have occurred at a wet market in Wuhan, China, where live bats were being sold for food.

But bats in nature don’t want anything to do with humans, and keep their distance, only rarely running into us by accident, and eliminating bats is not an answer to protect humans. Raina Plowright, a wildlife veterinarian and researcher at Montana State University, told The Washington Post that getting rid of bats “would be a disaster. They provide huge ecosystem services.” The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that, “By eating insects, bats save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control. Some studies have estimated that service to be worth over $3.7 billion per year, and possibly as much as $5.3 billion per year.”

According to Echo Health Alliance, “One bat is capable of eating up to 1,200 mosquitoes in a single hour. Between malaria, dengue fever, and other vector-borne illnesses, mosquitoes claim roughly 750,000 human lives per year.”

Even though bats can carry viruses within them, their own health is not negatively affected. They also live much longer than most small mammals, up to 40 years in many cases, says the National Library of Medicine. Both facts are why scientists are studying bat physiology, to find out how they resist falling ill to viruses.

Bats are not blind, but do use what’s called “echolocation,” a kind of natural sonar, to navigate dark places. They’re also not crazy.

Ms. Zahler considers bats intriguing creatures on every level. “Not many people know that bats hug each other and rub noses,” she said. “When a mother bat enters a cave, she can recognize her baby’s voice out of a thousand bats in there.”

One of the most difficult parts of her job, she said, is dealing with humans who have no understanding of wildlife. “People think wildlife make good pets,” she said. “No, they do not make good pets.” Bringing that box turtle or adorable bunny home will only hurt them — and cause problems for the would-be owners. “You can’t replicate a wild animal’s environment,” she added.

And if you think it’s a good idea to handle a wild creature or try getting rid of a pest on you own, think again. Call a professional.