Bats, making a home at Dutchtown High, are confounding Ascension officials

Furry, winged creatures about 4 inches in length with a love of mosquito dinner have found a home and a bathroom at Dutchtown High School.

Ten to 20 Mexican free-tailed bats, also known as Brazilian free-tailed bats, have been roosting behind the gutters of a building housing the school’s two gyms and band and choir rooms.

This little family of bats in Ascension made itself comfortable in their on-campus digs off La. 73, dropping their waste, known as guano, around the gym building.

State health officials said the bats can pose a health concern because a small percentage of bats carry rabies. Also, guano can carry diseases, including a fungal illness of the lungs and other organs known as histoplasmosis that can be a risk for children with depressed immune systems.

The Ascension Parish School Board agreed to close the gym building after an inspection Thursday by the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said Olivia Watkins, DHH press secretary.

“Experts from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and the LSU Agriculture Center are working closely with Dutchtown High School to ensure bats are eradicated from the school building which houses the gym, band and choir rooms, and that bat feces, better known as guano, is properly cleaned up,” Watkins said in a statement.

Distinguished from other bat species by 1.5-inch tails hanging free of the web of skin connecting their legs, Mexican free-tailed bats are colonial animals that can have roosts numbering in the hundreds of thousands and even millions. They have broad distribution across the United States.

Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is one famously large roost, but man-made buildings, bridges and attics can also be home for smaller groups.

Johnnie Balfantz, school system spokesman, said the school system has been dealing with bats at the gym building for awhile and spent $18,000 last year to try to keep the bats away.

Balfantz said the School Board has hired The Bug Man to keep the bats from returning. He said the gym was closed Friday as work began.

“We’re doing work on the outside that will try to again alleviate the problem, but the problem … it’s complicated. You can’t kill the bats,” Balfantz said.

The Mexican free-tailed bat, known as Tadarida brasiliensis, is not on federal endangered or threatened species lists. Under state wildlife regulations, however, the bats cannot be killed but must be removed, or what is called excluded.

Balfantz said workers started removing the gutters and using a foam to seal cracks. The gaps between the gutters and the building will then be covered with a metal sheeting to keep out the bats.

Carter Lambert, a Prairieville-based specialist licensed to remove bats in Louisiana, said he has removed bats from 30 to 40 schools.

He said schools make perfect homes for bats: There is little activity at night and school campuses usually have high, two-story buildings in which bats can roost.

“They always like the highest point they can find,” he said.

Lambert, who is not working on the Dutchtown High situation, said he has heard about the problems at the school and said excluding bats takes time to systematically seal off every entryway.

Lambert said he applies the “pinkie rule.”

“If your pinkie can fit in the hole, they (bats) can fit in the hole,” he said. “It’s all attention to detail.”

Lambert said bats should not be killed because they are valuable to the ecosystem, keeping mosquito populations down. He estimated that about 500 bats can eat 16 pounds of mosquitoes on a given night.

“That’s a lot of mosquitoes,” he said.

Dr. Gary Balsamo, state public health veterinarian and assistant state epidemiologist with DHH, said rabies is the No. 1 health concern with bats.

Probably fewer than 1 percent of bats overall have the disease, which is transmitted through a bite, but about 10 percent of all bats usually in contact with humans carry rabies, he said.

Guano is a secondary concern, Balsamo said. Usually among large accumulations of guano, spores of the fungus that causes histoplasmosis can be produced. Balsamo said the spores don’t normally lead to sickness in those people with normal immune systems.

He said school officials told him they have not noticed large accumulations of guano at the gym but he commended school officials for their caution.

“Again I think the school did the right thing in closing off that building,” Balsamo said.

Balfantz could not say Friday when work on the gym will be finished but he does not expect it to be “a long-term issue.” However, he said nothing will stop the bats from finding another home on a different building on campus.

“We could be chasing our tail for a long time on this,” Balfantz said. “It’s just unfortunate, but it’s what we’ve got to do.”