At the Natural History Museum in Bourges, researchers tenderly feed insects and kitten milk formula to tiny orphaned bats.
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered bat-killing sprees in communities around the world, but the mission of the museum in France is to protect the misunderstood winged animals.
Bats are vital pollinators and consumers of harmful crop pests, yet are mostly talked about as spreaders of disease and commonly portrayed in popular culture as blood-sucking parasites.
“People are scared of illnesses,” said museum director Laurent Arthur, who has spent years studying and saving bats. “But COVID-19 is not transmitted by guano (bat droppings).”
Arthur and his team of specialists have identified over 1,500 bat colonies in the larger Bourges area, and follow their movements and well-being.
Scientists believe the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 625,000 people worldwide to date, originated in bats and was passed to humans via intermediary animals, possibly pangolins sold at Chinese meat markets.
Invading animals’ habitat
Bats, of which there are over 1,200 species worldwide, appear to have a unique immune system that may make them resistant to pathogens, passing them on without falling ill, according to retired epidemiologist Francois Moutou, who works with the museum.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 60 percent of human infectious diseases originate from animals, including bats.
But humans, not animals, are to blame, according to researchers, who say the emergence of animal pathogens in our own species is most often associated with humans invading the creatures’ natural habitats.
Rescue baby bats
One of the team’s core tasks is to rescue baby bats, called pups, that sometimes get left behind when colonies move.
Researcher Aurelie Chretien patiently feeds tiny bats that weigh only a few grams each, using marker pens filled with kitten milk formula. The feedings take place in the enclosed amphitheater of the museum.
Every two years, the museum hosts some 500 specialists from around the country to discuss all things bat. “We are the Mecca, the Lourdes or, for atheists, the Pantheon, for bats,” said Arthur. They also spread the message that bats are not the enemy.