Heck, it’s just a big flying puppy, right?
This post is the result of several comments I have received- mainly on my tumblr, where I tend to post a lot of videos and photos of the bats I’ve worked with- about people wanting and/or spreading misinformation about pet bats. While I know that comments like “I want one” often aren’t meant seriously, I worry that my cute photos and videos may act as a catalyst for someone to actually seek out a pet bat. I want to explain to everyone who visits this website why that’s a bad idea.
Luckily, as far as I know, bats are not terribly prevalent in the exotic pet trade. I say ‘as far as I know’ because it is extremely difficult to find actual statistics on a business that treads a lot of murky lines between legal and illegal activity, and does much of its business in private, away from outsiders. However, it took only a few seconds of googling for me to find a listing of Egyptian fruit bats for sale in the United States (I won’t link to it and give it any possible publicity). It took just a little more googling for me to find several popular vines from Japan of pet fruit bats of varying species. (Japan in particular is a country with serious issues regarding the import and breeding of exotic pets. Which isn’t to say the US is much better.)
In the U.S. and some other countries, keeping native bats as pets is illegal, but it is legal in many states to import non-native species, particularly fruit bats like straw-colored fruit bats, Egyptian fruit bats, and leaf-nosed bats. As such, this article will focus mainly on the needs of fruit bats rather than insectivorous bats.
It’s not hard for me to see what the appeal of a bat is- I mean, I LOVE bats. And a lot of the fruit-eating species are pretty traditionally cute, with foxy faces and big bug eyes. Chihuahuas of the sky.
I mean, look at this.
But the thing is- and this should be obvious- bats aren’t flying dogs. They are intelligent, social, fascinating creatures, but that doesn’t mean they belong in your living room. And as someone who has worked with these critters, let me give you three solid reasons why.
Reason one: Bats Are Really Gross
Check out this video of a bat… uh, what is he doing? Rubbing something on himself? But what could it be- it’s piss. He’s rubbing piss into his fur. He does this every day, multiple times a day. If you were to touch him, you’d be touching a piss-oiled bat.
‘Urine wash’ behavior, as it’s called, isn’t the only natural behavior of the bat that we humans might find unsavory, but it’s definitely the one I like to bring up to visitors the most. Bats do this as a way to keep themselves fragrant, so to speak, though they also have smelly scent glands on both sides of their neck which they use to mark things as well. Quite liberally. On the corners of the night-houses where these captive bats live, there are black marks where the bats have scent-marked to the point of wearing away the paint. As someone who’s had to scrub the gunk off, that shit is potent. And stubborn.
Scent is a very important sense to a bat, and it’s a large part of how they communicate with one another. So they like to stay stinky. It isn’t so bad when the bats are kept outside, but when you bring a bat inside? Oh, boy. I’ve done a ten-minute drive to the vet with a scared Malayan flying fox in a carrier in the backseat, and the car took a week to recover. Leaving a bat overnight indoors- as was sometimes required with sick or disabled individuals- would greet you with a dense fog of a stench in the morning. Sort of like fermented fruit mixed with skunk. Really good.
It wasn’t just the bat that was stinky. Bats, as the only flying mammals, need to process shit quickly in order to keep their energy up. Which means that they eat a lot and pee a lot and poop a lot. You can’t potty train a bat- it’s just going to come out no matter what. Roughly twenty minutes after a fruit bat has eaten, everything gets processed. We put fresh paper under our isolated bats each night, and every morning that paper would be soaked through with urine, liquid poop, solid poop (it’s normal for them to have both) and spats.
…What are spats, I hear you ask? Let me tell you! You see, when a fruit bat eats fruit, it actually mostly just wants the sugary juice, not any of the hard-to-digest pulp or rind. So when they take a bite, they mash it up against the roof of their mouth, squeezing out as much juice as possible, and then… spit the rest out. So, essentially, any fruit bat enclosure is going to be littered with chunks of masticated fruit.
Did you know that bats aren’t the only animals who like fruit? Insects like roaches and fruit flies also like fruit. Do you know what really attracts these insects? Why, chunks of fruit left on the ground, of course! Where there are bat spats, insects follow. It’s great for a native ecosystem, but consider whether or not you want to harbor this ecosystem in the comfort of your home. Along with, you know, having to clean up feces and urine several times a day.
Pooping, peeing, and stinking aren’t the only impolite bodily functions bats do that might be frowned upon in human society. No. I’m talking about public masturbation and sex. Multiple times a day. Not subtle.
Have you ever had to give a tour to a group of kids while a bat autofellated itself in the background? I have.
Have you ever watched a male bat get his erection licked by another male while a third male attempts to mount him from behind? I have.
Have you ever seen a bat engage in so much aggressive anal sex that his partner’s anus is left scarred and bleeding? Thankfully I haven’t, but that was because the bats were permanently separated before I arrived.
Bats… have a lot of sex. And a lot of boners. And even the females will hump, mount, and get cozy with each others’ vulvas. It is impossible to get around it, and even castrated bats still get multiple erections each day, which they proceed to lick and rub their faces against… among other things.
I gave my sister a private tour of the bat facility, and her first glimpse of an erect bat penis caused her to yell. It is truly a startling sight for the uninitiated. I will say that I got so used to it I stopped even noticing the boners a couple weeks in- but think about that. Look at that linked picture and think about it. That happened so much that I stopped noticing it.
Masturbation multiple times a day is normal for a bat. Same-sex behavior is normal for a bat. The employees at Disney’s Wild Kingdom, where they have Malayan flying foxes on display, literally have specific training about how to explain bat erections to children. (Kids react to: bat masturbation!)
Let me close out this section with one final story, told to me by a senior keeper: one day, she was going to feed an older male bat, without realizing he had just masturbated and ejaculated on his own face. He sneezed on her.
Bats are gross.
Reason Two: It’s Expensive and Time-Consuming
Most exotic pets come with a hefty price tag, and I guess if you’re an especially rich person, that’s not an issue for you. But there is no getting around that bats in particular have a lot of special accommodations that they need to be housed appropriately. (And you do want to house your pets appropriately, right?)
The most obvious factor is that bats fly. Flying is a big part of their life. So no matter how small the species is, it is going to need a lot more space than similarly-sized mammals because it needs open space to fly in. If bats aren’t permitted to fly, they often get overweight, or may attempt to fly anyway and end up seriously hurting themselves. They can’t have their wings clipped to prevent long-range flight like birds can, so a bat escaping and flying away is a serious danger.
Essentially, a good bat enclosure is going to be the size of a good bird flight cage. Why not have a nighttime cage and let the bat roam the house during the day, as some people do with birds, you ask? Well, the main answer is that bats naturally seek the highest points in an area to land on. For some small bats with especially adept claws, this will be your ceiling. Or the top of your cabinets. Anywhere inconvenient for you to reach. Small bats are also especially good at slotting themselves into crevices- some species sleep underneath loose tree bark. Imagine trying to find one in a stack of dishes. Large fruit bats are somewhat clumsy fliers and in a variable, closed environment like a house risk seriously hurting themselves crashing into something. Also, unlike birds, they pee and poop in large amounts, separately. The list goes on.
But most importantly, bats are nocturnal and in some cases crepuscular. Unless you’re there at night supervising their outside time, their most active periods would be spent cooped up inside a small cage. Bats need flight cages, preferably outdoor ones, so they don’t stink up your whole house.
Panorama of an appropriately-sized bat enclosure.
Ok, so you’re gonna need a lot of space and building materials to house your bats. And I mean bats plural- almost all bat species are highly social and require companions of their own kind. And I mean require. I spoke about bats kept in solitary for health reasons- it was critical that we at least allow them to spend part of their day in the company of other bats. In fact, they became extraordinarily anxious about it, particularly if they weren’t used to it- I had one, normally calm bat almost jump into my arms due to being so distressed after having to spend the night alone. Other bats, kept isolated each night due to age and the fear that they would fall or get attacked by younger, stronger ones when keepers weren’t around, still desperately wanted to be returned to the group each morning. Even if the group was hell-bent on beating them up.
Bats have a myriad of different social structures, but the fruit bats commonly kept in captivity have social behavior comparable to primates like baboons or macaques. They need large groups- ten or more- to adequately fulfill their social needs. And large groups need large enclosures. Housed in too-small groups, bats become depressed, lethargic, and may stop eating and die. Housed in groups that don’t have adequate living space, bats will most likely fight with one another and end up with injuries.
This leads me to vet bills. Oh, vet bills! You’re going to need to find a vet who’s willing to treat bats in the first place, and then you’re going to pay up a lot of money. And even then, the vet may not know enough about bats to treat one accurately. Bats are physically unique mammals with unique problems- an exotic pet vet may not know, for example, that if a bat is seen ‘cradling’- hanging by both thumbs and feet- it can be a sign of chronic pain or joint problems which may end up leading to the bat needing to be euthanized if not quickly controlled.
Speaking of euthanasia, there’s another serious risk with bats. You see, bats are considered rabies vector species. This means it doesn’t matter if they’re vaccinated (if you can get even ahold of a bat-appropriate vaccine)- if your pet scratches or bites someone and draws blood, and that someone reports it, Animal Services legally have to come in, seize your pet, and euthanize it to test it for rabies. There was a particularly tragic story circulating on tumblr about a blogger’s pet fox, another rabies-vector species, that suffered this fate.
Okay, but say you have built your bats a nice enclosure, with a good-sized colony for them to socialize with, and you even have a vet that knows how bats do. Now you’re going to need to deal with the daily cost of feeding a bat. If it’s a fruit bat, it’s going to need to eat a carefully balanced diet of multiple types of fresh fruit and vegetables* each day, plus vitamin supplements since our commercial fruit has poor nutritional value compared to wild species. Fruit is expensive and spoils quickly, which means a lot of shopping. And it must be fresh fruit- canned fruit is high sugar/low nutrition and there is no such thing as bat kibble, considering they won’t touch food that doesn’t have a high moisture content. I have heard of some zoos having success with canned ZuPreem marmoset diet, which retails between 2-3 dollars per can, in addition to fresh fruit.
(*The diet at the facility I worked at included: apples, pears, kale, sweet potato, carrots, grapes, and bananas, plus the supplement.)
There is also the question of enrichment. You can’t leave a colony of bats alone all day with nothing to do- they are extraordinarily intelligent animals with a penchant for being self-destructive if not adequately entertained. Different, high-quality enrichment should be provided for bats each day, which is a time-consuming process by itself.
Finally, a fact which often surprises people: bats can live for 20-30 years in captivity. You may be feeding them that expensive diet and cleaning that big cage every single day for decades.
Reason Three: You Know, Ethics and Stuff
It is certainly possible for an individual with a great deal of money, space, and time to build an adequate enclosure, provide the appropriate diet, and perform the daily husbandry necessary to humanely keep a small colony of bats under private ownership. But once you get to that point, the bats you own aren’t really your pets the way most people think of pets. Bats kept in a stable social group aren’t going to be interested in socializing with you– you’re not a bat. Maybe you can give them a treat every now and then, and they like that, but overall they’re going to be less stressed if you’re not hanging around them, staring, acting like a predator.
It’d be sort of like having a school of flying, mammalian, tropical fish. For display only.
Most people who want bats as pets do not want this type of pet. They want to be able to reach up and cuddle a bat, carry it around, show it off to their friends. They want to feel a ‘connection,’ a bond, with these adorable animals; they want them to be excited to see them and depend on them.
But to make a bat need you, to want to have contact with you and interact with you in a more-than-superficial manner, you have to do some nasty things. You have to take the baby bat away from its mother and hand-rear it. And I have met some hand-reared bats: many of them are a mess. They may never learn how to fly, they may have nutritional deficiencies (the best formula doesn’t match mom’s milk), and worst of all, they may not learn how to socialize with other bats. To see a bat seek out human contact rather than bat contact is always sad to me, because unlike the other bats, I can’t be there twenty-four hours a day. I can’t sleep beside the bat, groom the bat, or do a myriad of other normal bat behaviors- including sex. Yes, some hand-reared bats will try to have sex with their human caretakers, because that is normal bat behavior. It’s funny- until it’s sad.
By hand-rearing a bat and never giving it the opportunity to socialize with its own kind, you are effectively isolating it. You can’t fill the social need that a whole colony does. Isolated bats often overgroom themselves, bite themselves, stop eating. Bats are already anxious animals, given the number of predators they have- the stress of being constantly handled, moved, or kept in areas that don’t feel safe can literally kill them. Even the best accredited zoo facilities sometimes have this problem with their bats.
Dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals have had thousands of years to temper their anxiety, emotional needs, and physical needs to better match human lifestyles. A dog can be totally dependent on a human caretaker and be happy, healthy, and an excellent pet. If you want an animal to have that kind of relationship with you, please get a dog.
Bats do not make good pets.
Read on: I’ve discussed exotic animal ownership before, in my essay on three considerations to have before adopting an exotic pet. To see other articles I’ve written on topics in biology, head to my nonfiction section!