Carrie Fenton first learned about bats back in Long Island, through local bat revitalization programs. Then she went to college in New Orleans, the definitive vampire capital of the United States. She lived in Montana for a year, where she became accustomed to all kinds of wildlife — rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bears.
She even found a colony of bats in her home there.
“I had a very relaxed attitude about them, coming to Sitka, because I had lived for a year with bats, and we could hear them kind of crawling around in the ceiling and crawling around in the walls,” Fenton said. “And we would see them all the time outside at night, you know, swooping around.”
But in Montana, the bats never came in the house.
One September morning in 2020, around five o’clock, Fenton discovered the first bat in her house in Sitka, when it landed on her face.
“I had brushed this furry thing off of my face. And I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a mouse in the house,” Fenton recalled. “And I rolled over and it was flying. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, no! It’s a bat!”
She called the nurse help line at SEARHC. They told her she needed to come to the hospital right away.
“And I got to the hospital and the nurses, they were like, ‘Are you sure it was a bat? I don’t think we have bats in Sitka,’” Fenton recalled. “We spent like 15 minutes kind of going back and forth. And they were like, ‘Oh, yes, we do actually have bats, we need to have you come in. So I had to go through the rabies shots, which was not fun.”
I must disclose, here, that I too have lived among the bats. A colony inhabited my home in Alabama a decade ago. I remember them lurking in the folds of my bath towels and swooping at me in the kitchen as I cooked spaghetti. I once picked one up, thinking it was a magnolia leaf I’d tracked indoors, and it screamed at me. I’ve dined out on that story for a long time.
I thought it was unusual to discover a bat colony in your chimney. But it turns out that it’s pretty common, including in Southeast Alaska, where there are several types of bats.
Karen Blejwas is a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, working in their threatened, endangered and diversity program. For the last 10 years, her work has focused primarily on the bat populations in Southeast Alaska.
“We have six resident species. And then we have a seventh that we’ve recorded acoustically, but we’ve never captured or had any further documentation of,” said Blejwas. So yeah, quite a few.”
Each fall, bats swarm, mate and go into hibernation. On the East Coast, bats will gather in large groups to hibernate in caves. That’s typically when bats spread white nose syndrome, a fungus that has been devastating to bat populations around the world in the last 15 years or so. The fungus has made it as far north as Washington. But Southeast’s topography has worked against the disease, forcing unique hibernation patterns that reduce the spread.
“So here in Southeast, where we’ve found the bats hibernating around these steep, forested hillsides with a rocky surface underneath,” Blejwas said, “it’s essentially just a jumble of rocks, and the bats are crawling into those spaces between the rocks.”
Because the bats are hibernating in much smaller, dispersed groups, they’re less likely to spread the fungus during their hibernation period.
After mating, females actually store sperm over the winter. They emerge in the spring from their hibernation sites and form maternity colonies, settling in warm environments where their pups will develop more quickly and have the greatest chance to thrive.
That’s what Fenton was most likely experiencing in the spring of 2021, around half a year after she spotted the first bat.
“We started seeing them more on the porch, flying around at night,” Fenton recalled. “We started finding poop in the house on the porch all the time.”
Once there’s a maternity colony nesting in your house, the real journey begins. It is illegal to kill bats, and Blejwas said extermination is not an effective way to deal with them, anyway. The bats present in a home on any given night are just a fraction of the total number of bats using the space — the females even switch roosts periodically during the summer, so there’s constant turnover.
“So really, the only way, if you don’t want them in your house, is to physically exclude them, and that can be challenging depending on how the house was constructed because bats need only need three-eighths of an inch gap to crawl in,” Blejwas said.
What about other relocation strategies, like bat houses? Blejwas added that while they’re successful in other parts of the country, they historically haven’t worked in Southeast Alaska.
Last summer, Fenton tried to start the exclusion process with a pest removal company in Ketchikan, but at the time they weren’t traveling due to the pandemic. That left Fenton with one option — seal up the house herself after the bats left to hibernate and hope they wouldn’t come back the following spring.
But as this summer’s warmth returned, the bats moved back in. Now she’s couch surfing.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Fenton said. “My landlord has been pretty supportive, though. And she’s waived my rent, which has been really helpful.”
Fenton said she would have moved out of the house a while ago, but she’s had trouble finding a new apartment, and now she has a seasonal job and is unsure of whether she’ll stay in Sitka long-term, which makes it difficult to commit to a new lease.
She said the pest control crew and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have been very helpful. In June, the pest removers came to Sitka, and surveyed her house
“Bats are really incredible creatures,” Fenton said. “But I’m looking forward to the day I don’t live with them and they’re not my roommates.”