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Couple says bats pose health risk

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 7:49 a.m.

One morning last month, John Klotz noticed two small, red slashes on his left ankle as he got out of bed.

"I didn't really think anything of it," said Klotz, who lives with his wife, Peg, in a 19th century brick colonial on East Main Street in Ligonier.

But later that evening, as Klotz was watching television, something flashed through the air in front of him. He soon discovered a fluttering bat in his home, which he killed with a broom and took outside. He concluded that the animal must have caused his still-fresh wound.

"I still don't know how it got into my house, " Klotz said.

By the next day, the Klotzes began what they called a painful and costly medical process to receive rabies vaccination shots at Mercy Jeannette Hospital, where Peg Klotz is a nurse.

"All I know is if I wouldn't have found it, I might be dead," John Klotz said.

Dr. Murty Ganti "took one look at the bite and my swollen ankle and said I needed rabies shots; my wife had to get them, too, as a precaution," said Klotz, who discarded the dead bat at Ganti's orders.

Klotz initially required 10 shots of immunoglobulin around the bite site, while he and his wife received shots of the substance in their hips and both arms. For each round of shots, the bill was $3,964.75.

Although the couple has completed their precautionary health treatment, they have found no easy answers in attempting to address the potential public health risk posed by what may have been a rabid bat.

The Klotzes suspect the bat came from a long-vacated home at 230 E. Main St. belonging to Harold I. Bisel, of Latrobe.

"We sit on our swing in the backyard and watch bats come in and out of that house," John Klotz said. "We just don't want what happened to us to happen to anybody else."

Last week, Bisel acknowledged the presence of bats in the house and said he is looking into ways to eliminate the animals from the structure.

"We are investigating and responding to solve this problem. We are not going to ignore it, especially if there's potential for a health problem, so we'll be working toward a solution with the borough," Bisel said. "We'll proceed on the borough's recommendation concerning further action. The borough's official response is to be voiced at Thursday's council meeting. I won't be there, but I'll have a representative from my staff there."

At one point when the Klotzes consulted infectious disease doctors with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, they were told that maybe they should contact their congressman.

On June 5, three days after the Klotzes found the bat in their house, the state Department of Health contacted them to see if they still had the dead bat.

"We told them that the hospital told us to get rid of it," John Klotz said.

Therein lies the first problem in trying to determine if the bat was rabid, said Pennsylvania Game Commission regional supervisor Mel Schake.

"That's the difficult part of these kinds of circumstances; if you don't have the actual animal preserved for testing that you saw biting you, nothing can be done to see if it is rabid," Schake said.

The health department referred the Klotzes to the state Department of Agriculture and the Game Commission. Neither of those agencies said they could do anything to help the couple and referred them back to the state Department of Health, Peg Klotz said.

"The health department said they don't handle those things, the department of agriculture didn't know why I was calling them and the game commission said bats are a protected species," Peg Klotz said. "It's like a vicious cycle, everyone's passing the buck."

Rich McGarvey, spokesman for the department of health, said his agency relies on individual municipalities to address health concerns when it comes to bats.

"It sounds like more of a housing problem for the borough to address with ordinances," McGarvey said.

The borough police department investigated the neighboring property but said they could not do anything about the bats. Borough Mayor Ormand "Butch" Bellas told John Klotz that the property does not violate the borough's dilapidated housing ordinance, so council could not force any action.

"The place doesn't look that bad," Bellas said. "As long as they pay their taxes and keep the place up, we don't have any ordinances on bats."

The Klotzes say there are no bats living in their recently renovated home. They say they live in fear of more bats entering their home. The couple voiced concern about the amount of guano, or bat droppings, covering portions of the adjacent house's outside structure. A fungus known as histoplasmosis that is found in bat guano can be transmitted to humans primarily through the respiratory system.

"It (the guano) stinks on hot and humid days, and even when you clean it, you're supposed to use respirators. And no one's concerned," Peg Klotz said. "There are kids that play on this block, we have grandkids over, this is a health issue. When they play at night, you just don't know when they're going to fly out."

Built in 1790, the house in question is easily the oldest in the borough, Bellas said. A commemorative plaque displayed near the front door is from the Ligonier Valley Historical Society.

Bisel, president of Tartan Properties Inc., a home restoration agency, used to live in the house before moving to Latrobe 10 years ago. He since has had his crews working to restore the house.

"It's a time-consuming process because we want to preserve the integrity of the house and its original frame," Bisel said.

Bellas said Bisel's crews are free to take as long as they think is necessary to complete the project.

"When you're remodeling, you don't have to apply for a permit here, so the borough has no recourse to hurry them up," Bellas said.

Last week, project manager and Tartan Vice President Russell Fauer inspected the house and found a family of five to six bats living in each of the house's two chimneys, along with an undisclosed number hanging in the structure's eaves.

"There's by no means a colony; I can tell you that there are less (bats) than in past years at this house," said Bisel, adding that he's heard of numerous other bat-inhabited houses in the borough. "But we are not going to ignore this problem; we do not want the people of that community at risk."

Beyond cleaning up the mounds of guano collecting on the ledges of the house, solutions to ridding the house of the bats largely depend on preserving the welfare of the bats, Schake said.

"Our main concern is that we don't want the bats harmed," Schake said.

For that reason, a process called exclusion often is used to collect bats and transport them to another living area.

The best way to exclude bats is to locate where they may be entering and exiting the house, according to Bat Conservation International Inc., of Austin, Texas. Any opening that the bats could use to enter the house needs to be covered with plastic sheeting, sealed on three sides with the bottom left open. That allows the bats to leave, but makes it virtually impossible for them to re-enter.

Schake said the exclusion technique should not be attempted until mid-August at the earliest because bats have their young in June or early July and, by sealing the mother out, the flightless pups would be trapped inside.

If residents call the game commission, the commission can get them in contact with experts who can help them with the exclusion process, Schake said.

Another solution involves installing bat houses. Such structures are composed of a series of wood panels, roughly 2 feet wide and 3 feet high, with an open bottom and a rough top that the bats can hang onto. The house should be away from trees and should be elevated off the ground because owls, hawks, raccoons and cats are natural predators.

According to Schake, bats are definitely worth preserving in a community if they can be kept out of people's houses.

"Bats are very beneficial critters, they eat lots of insects," Schake said of the animals that can eat 25 percent of their own body weight. "Where there are a lot of bats, there are ways of dealing with that, but there has to be a coordinated effort to exclude them and transport them elsewhere."

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