For the first time, a Juneau bat tested positive for rabies

gloved hands hold the wings of a dead bat open and measure the wingspan
A veterinarian autopsies a silver bat with rabies in Fairbanks. June 28, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen.)

A bat in Juneau has tested positive for rabies. State biologists say that’s a first — and that people are not at risk.

Protocol for a suspicious bat is this: without touching it, you put it in a box and leave it overnight.

“If it is a normal bat, we would expect it to fly away over that period,” said state wildlife biologist Roy Churchwell.

He got a call from animal control about a suspicious bat outside an apartment building on Douglas Island in late June.

“It was still there in the morning, which indicated to us that something was wrong with it,” he said.

Churchwell went and collected the bat, which had to be euthanized. He sent it to state veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen in Fairbanks, who tested it for rabies.

“This is the first time a bat on Douglas Island or in the Juneau area has tested positive, but that doesn’t mean we expect more cases,” Beckmen said in a press release. “This detection in a different location just highlights that the risk of bat rabies is always present in southeast Alaska.”

This is only the sixth bat to test positive for rabies in Alaska over more than 45 years of testing, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Game. All six of them were found in Southeast Alaska, but this is the first in Juneau.

“So far it’s just the isolated case,” said Churchwell. “We have sent a couple other bats up that haven’t tested positive from the Juneau area, so it’s not something we’re too worried about yet.”

Karen Blejwas identified the bat as a silver haired bat. She’s a wildlife biologist with ADFG’s Threatened Endangered and Diversity program.

“This is actually only the fifth or sixth specimen of silver haired bat that we’ve ever collected in Alaska. So that was unusual,” she said.

They’re distinct from the brown haired bats that are typical in the region because they’re bigger and have rounded rather than pointy ears. They’re usually recognizable by silver hair.

She said their numbers seem to be increasing in Southeast Alaska, but they’ve proven so difficult to catch that biologists have resorted to tracking them acoustically. Silver haired bats have a distinct call, but you can’t hear it.

“All the echolocation calls are above the range of human hearing,” said Blejwas. “We have special ultrasonic microphones that we use to kind of eavesdrop on the bats.”

Biologists take recordings of the bat calls and lower the frequency so that it’s in the range of human hearing. Blejwas is currently working with data from a citizen science tracking project to try and determine regional bat populations.

She and Churchwell agree that the most likely route of rabies exposure would be if an unvaccinated pet tangled with a rabid bat and then passed it to a human.

“The key is to make sure that your pets are all up on their vaccinations,” he said.

Churchwell says he only gets called to check out three or four bats a year, and it’s usually because they’re hanging out in the eves of a home.

Claire Stremple

Alaska News Reporter, KTOO

I believe every Alaskan has a right to timely information about their health and health systems, and their natural environment and its management. My goal is to report thoughtful stories that inform, inspire and quench the curiosity of listeners across the state.

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