Bats play an important role in the ecosystem as pollinators and by eating thousands of flying insect pests. However, they can also be carriers of rabies and any potential contact with one must be treated seriously. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

It was one of the greatest instances of ironic timing I’ve experienced. On Wednesday while a Maine-based radio show was talking about rabies in the state, I was sitting in a St. Joseph Hospital’s emergency room in Bangor waiting to get a rabies vaccine.

All because I wanted to save a bat.

In a recent column I wrote of an incident in my apartment during which my two cats cornered a bat in my apartment while I was sound asleep nearby on the couch.

My efficient capture and release of the bat worked out well for the bat. Not so much for yours truly.

That’s because any time there is a bat-human interaction when the human is asleep, there is a chance — albeit remote — for rabies exposure, as bats can be vectors for the disease. Rabies in humans is nothing to joke about. While human cases are 100 percent treatable, they are also near 100 percent fatal when that treatment is delayed or ignored.

julia bayly’s great bat rescue

Which is why I ended up in the St. Joe’s ER for the first two of a course of five shots.

And I have Don Hoenig, retired Maine state veterinarian, to thank. Turns out Hoenig read my column and was concerned about my well being. He reached out to me and encouraged me to seek care.

“It’s a concern,” Hoenig said during a telephone conversation after my first round of shots. “Bats do cause a small number of human [rabies] cases over the years.”

More concerning is the fact that if your possible bat contact happens when you are asleep, you may not even know you have been potentially exposed to rabies.

“A bat bite is often not apparent or very hard to see,” Hoenig said. “That’s because their teeth are so small and needlelike.”

Basically, if you are sound sleeper and there is a rabid bat flying around you, there is a chance you can get bitten and not even know it.

Hoenig did applaud me on my altruistic reaction of saving the bat and taking it outside. But the smarter thing would have been to capture the bat and arrange to have it sent to be tested for rabies.

“If you have a bat that happens to get into your house when you are awake then you should try to get it back outside,” he said. “It’s when you are sleeping and wake up to find one in the same room you need to capture it.”

Rabies is currently on the rise in Maine wildlife with 30 cases confirmed so far this year — most in raccoons.

rabies risk in maine

That was the topic of the June 14 episode of Maine Calling on Maine Public Radio.

A wild animal behaving oddly could be showing symptoms of rabies, according to Hoenig.

“Rabies causes animals to act in a manner totally out of character,” he said. “Normally they want to stay away from people but I have heard of many cases when rabid animals act aggressive and attack people.”

Two years ago, a rabid fox was trying to attack people in Brunswick.

People get rabies by coming into direct contact with the saliva, brain or nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The most common way is from getting bitten. But it can also be transmitted if a rabid animal licks you.

Anyone that thinks they have come into direct contact with a rabid animal should report it by calling the public health line of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at 1-800-821-5821. The agency will take your general information and assign a CDC epidemiologist to your case to get specific information.

Any wild animal that has come in contact with a domestic animal or person and can’t be observed in quarantine should be tested by the Maine State Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta. The test is free and results are available the same or following day.

Procedures for getting the animal to the lab and other information is available on the Maine CDC’s online rabies page.

Timing is everything. Rabies in humans has to be treated within 14 days after exposure. The disease could remain dormant in the human body for weeks, months and even years. Once symptoms show up, there is no treatment.

“The incubation period can be long,” Hoenig said. “It has to travel up the nerve fibers until it reaches the brain, so the farther your area of exposure is on your body from the brain, the longer it will take.”

common rabies vectors in maine

Around 55,000 people die every year from rabies and most of them are children in rural areas outside the US.

“It’s tragic for kids and people in undeveloped countries,” Hoenig said. “It’s most often linked to dogs who are never vaccinated and then it becomes difficult or impossible for people to access treatment.”

That’s why it is so important to have our pets vaccinated for rabies — even indoor pets like mine.

I feel very lucky to not only be a bit smarter about rabies exposure now, but to live in a place with ready access to the life-saving treatment.

But I’d be lying if I said I was not disappointed to learn that if the bat actually did bite me while I was asleep, there is virtually no possibility of it giving me any sort of superpowers or turning me into a creature of the night.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.