As Awareness About Rabies Grows, More Business for This Crusader
New York Times Article
September 29, 2000
By Jane Gross
When the furry winged creature, its teeth as small and sharp as needles, swooped through her bedroom here in the middle of the night, Gina Grieco shrieked, pulled the sheets over her head and told her husband to call 911.
First the police came, trapping the big brown bat, one of two species common in these parts. Then they summoned Jim
Dreisacker, aka the batman, who rides to the rescue day and night in Westchester County, combining the skills of a wildlife trapper, a contractor, a therapist and a mordant comedian.
”It takes a lot to get me worked up, and it’s probably good that people see how calm I am,” Mr. Dreisacker said, heading from the Grieco house, where he did a modest $2,500 bat-proofing job; to a Mount Kisco home where $9,000 would buy a five-year guarantee; to a 2,500-acre estate farther north, where he was removing more than 1,000 bats from the main house and outbuildings for $30,000.
Calm is not the word for it, as Mr. Dreisacker marches into an infested corn crib, the rafters shoulder to shoulder with twittering bats and the floor deep in their infectious guano. Or when he removes a bat from a glue trap, loosening it with a slosh of vegetable oil and then letting the agitated creature nip at his gloved hands. Or when he breaks a bat’s narrow neck with the slap of a stick so it can be sent to Albany for testing in the rabies laboratory there.
Few of Mr. Dreisacker’s clients stick around to watch him at work.
In Mount Kisco, one couple took a room at the Yale Club while Mr. Dreisacker trapped and removed the bats. Then, he caulked and netted every crevice, chimney, ridge vent and soffit to prevent the bats’ return.
A Pleasantville woman fled to her mother’s home on Long Island, children in tow, leaving her husband behind. And in
Lewisburg, a client insisted that Mr. Dreisacker’s assistant, Manny Alvarado, sleep in his house until the process, known as exclusion, was completed.
Mrs. Grieco, living here in the house where her husband was raised, was stoic by comparison. ”I grew up in Paramus,” she said. ”No bats, just malls. I told my husband he’s lucky I’m not in a hotel right now.”
For her sons, 5 and 3, there was a little white lie: The mesh on the attic windows and the bat trap on back of the house were to catch birds. ”I don’t need their nightmares,” she said.
Mr. Dreisacker, who runs Westchester Wildlife Control out of an office in Brewster, charges high-end prices in a business in which bids can range from $500 to $5,000 for the same job, leaving customers scratching their heads.
”For the majority of people here, price isn’t an issue,” he said. ”They say, ‘Just get them out; get it done.’ ”
Westchester accounts for more bats sent to the Albany lab than any other county in the state, consistent with its population share, since there is a second lab for New York City’s five boroughs.
Experts say the bat population has held steady over the years, as has the percentage of rabid bats, 1 percent to 4 percent, depending on whom you ask.
But more and more homeowners are summoning help if they see a bat in their living space. And under recent state guidelines, all bats trapped inside a house are checked for rabies, swelling work at the state lab, which tested 3,495 bats last year, up from 2,337 in 1997.
Even when the bats are gone, the fear lingers.
At one up-county address, Mr. Dreisacker reported to the owner that the lone bat captured in the master bedroom, a big brown, had tested negative for rabies. It was a male, which was a good sign because male bats tend to roost alone and not in large colonies.
He had sealed the house but for the most obvious exit, evident by watching the bats come and go and by grease stains from their fur. A trap had been placed nearby, connected to the exit by exhaust tubing. When the remaining bats flew out at dusk in search of insect nourishment, they were caught.
Mr. Dreisacker, a licensed wildlife control operator since 1982 and one of a dozen recommended on the County Health Department’s Web site, considered it a job well done. But for days his cellular phone rang with worried questions:
”How do you know all of them got out?”
”Are you sure they can’t get back in?”
”Should we caulk under all the cedar shingles?”
”What about more sticky traps?”
Mr. Dreisacker smiled indulgently. ”You’re thinking too much,” he said.
The increased vigilance among homeowners stems from two deaths from rabies at the Westchester County Medical Center in the 1990’s, both children bitten as they slept.
The deaths, of an 11-year-old girl from Sullivan County in 1993 and a 13-year-old girl from Greenwich, Conn., in 1995, coincided with a growing awareness by public health officials that virtually all rabies deaths were the result of contact with bats, even though there are far more rabid raccoons, skunks and other terrestrial mammals.
The reason for the disproportionate danger from bats, according to Charles Trimarchi, director of the rabies lab at the New York State Department of Health, is that anyone bitten by a raccoon, for instance, is sure to know it.
But a bat’s tiny teeth do their work in the dead of night, often without waking the victim or leaving a telltale wound. While the incidence of contact between bats and humans is rare, county and state health department officials say, the potentially deadly results merit vigilance.
Of 23 rabies deaths in the United States in the last decade, 21 were from undetected contact with bats; the acute viral infection of the nervous system is invariably fatal without vaccination before the earliest symptoms. For those who know they have been exposed, a series of six inoculations over the course of a month is a sure cure, Mr. Trimarchi said. Professionals like Mr. Dreisacker get preventive inoculations, yearly blood tests and boosters when needed.
It is the secret, nocturnal strikes by bats that inspire terror, despite bats’ great value in controlling night-flying insects. A single bat eats 3,000 to 7,000 bugs each night, including this summer’s dreaded mosquitoes, outdoing any blast of insect repellent, citronella candle or bug zapper.
So bats have their defenders, as firm in their conviction as other animal rights advocates.
To simplify their position, it is that wildlife control experts like Mr. Dreisacker should not kill any bats, except those that must be tested for rabies. Instead, they urge the construction of bat houses, near the original roosts, or relocation to wooded areas.
Mr. Dreisacker says that he sometimes relocates bats to state land in Brewster but that it is a fool’s errand.
Bats are loyal to their roosting sites, he said, and find their way home, taking up residence in a nearby house if the one they had lived in is successfully bat-proofed.
To test his theory, he tracked seven bats relocated recently from a home in Bedford Hills.
Six made their way back by the next day to the same neighborhood, a 10-mile journey.
Many of his customers tell him that their bat problem started immediately after neighbors had their house sealed.
Regardless of whether he intends to relocate or kill the bats he traps — the most popular methods are breaking their necks, shooting them with a .22-caliber pistol, and gassing them in a chamber filled with carbon dioxide — Mr. Dreisacker treads gently when clients inquire.
”What do you do with them, by the way?” Mrs. Grieco asked in a quavering voice, as her younger son strained to hear the answer.
”I take them for a long ride,” Mr. Dreisacker answered.
In his own home, finding a bat and disposing of it is a routine chore. Returning from vacation this summer, 12-year-old Curtis, whom Mr. Dreisacker calls ”the next little batman,” heard the unmistakable rustle and chatter when opening an attic closet to put away some suitcases.
He summoned his father, who caught and killed the bat while his wife and four children looked on calmly. No calls to 911. No shrieking or running for cover. Just a few raised eyebrows as to why the batman had neglected to bat-proof his own house. ”I haven’t gotten around to it yet,” Mr. Dreisacker said, abashed. ”I’m too busy doing other people’s houses. Maybe this winter, when things slow up.”