Everyone loves a good story. Before recorded history, storytelling began with visual communication in prehistoric cave drawings, progressing to tales told by word of mouth. Mythology had practical purposes in early society, often religious in nature, its function was to form and shape society and social behavior. Likewise, Fairy tales were meant to entertain, but also to teach a clear lesson. In present-day times, we may call such stories urban legends or folklore. What they all have in common is the absolute belief some have in their authenticity.
It’s time to put an end to some of these tales and replace these fables with fact.
Since Halloween is coming up, let’s start off with the Bat. There few animals, who are more maligned than the poor bat. Strongly associated with darkness, death and evil, the bat is feared in most cultures. The number one misconception is bats want to drink your blood. In truth, 70% of bats eat insects, the rest eat fruit, nectar or pollen and only three species drink blood. All three of the blood-drinking variety are in Central and South America and only occasionally feed on human blood.
Next up is the belief that they all carry rabies. In fact, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife factsheet on bats: “probably less than 1 percent of the native wild bat population has rabies.” Even if they do have the disease, it manifests in paralysis, rendering them incapable of flying. So, if you don’t handle bats, you greatly limit your odds of contracting rabies.
Bats are not blind. They navigate by echolocation which means they send out sound waves from their nose or mouth, the echo bounces off objects, which allows them to locate and estimate the size of the object. Not only are they not blind, they can find something as small as a human hair in total darkness. Which brings us to the last and most puzzling myth, bats are attracted to and get tangled in human hair. Not true, this seems to come from observation of bats flying somewhat erratically while chasing prey in the dark. Rest assured, they don’t want to be in your hair any more than you want them there.
Wolves are arguably the most reviled animal on earth. At one time wolves roamed nearly all of the United States, but by 1960 had the distinction of being the only animal purposefully driven to near extinction by humans. There are many theories for why the wolf is so hated, ranging from fear brought here by Europeans fueled by fairy tales. Or the belief that they kill livestock and compete with humans for wild game. But as Lorna Smith, the executive director for Western Wildlife Outreach says: “Wolves are the least dangerous of all the large carnivores. We only know of two fatalities from wild wolves in North America EVER, one in Canada and one in Alaska.”
There is a belief that these wild canines are responsible for many livestock deaths. In reality, in 2015 the US Department of Agriculture shows domestic dogs killing twice as many cattle as wolves. Most cattle losses come from respiratory, calving or unknown causes. There is no doubt depredation can be unevenly distributed, causing larger problems for single producers, but the losses are still relatively small.
There are also stories of overpopulated super-sized more aggressive disease-ridden than “before” wolves killing all the elk and deer for “sport”. It’s true the biggest wolf ever documented was BIG, 175 pounds, in 1939. However, an average-sized male Gray wolf ranges from 95-100 pounds. Wolves do engage in surplus killing on occasion, but it isn’t for the thrill, it is simply survival. If a pack finds themselves with very vulnerable prey, they will kill more to feed on overtime. It is not simply for sport.
When I asked Ben Maletzke, statewide WDFW wolf specialist, about population numbers he said, “Each pack is territorial and takes up the space they need to secure their resources. There is a limit to the number of wolves the landscape can support based on the territorial behavior of wolves.” So, reports of out of control population growth just aren’t possible. As for disease, people are likely talking about Echinococcus – a parasitic disease that canines can get from eating infected sheep and humans can get from the canine stool. A good reminder to wash your hands often after playing with dog or wolf poop.
“If you touch that bird its mother will smell you and abandon it!” We all heard that one growing up, right? Well considering most birds don’t have a great sense of smell, that just isn’t true. Likely, it’s a tale long ago concocted to keep curious children away from vulnerable and/or dangerous wildlife. On the flip side, you might hear people tell a tale of sunbathing and being circled by vultures! Horrors! Vultures are one of the few birds that can smell, but are attracted to the scent of decomposition. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be sunbathing if I were decomposing. Likely, the birds they saw were just catching a wobbly ride on a thermal in the sky and didn’t think Coppertone was at all inviting.
You may think bird brain is an insult but actually, birds have more neurons in their small brains than are in mammalian or even primate brains of the same size. Hummingbirds remember all the flowers they’ve recently visited and know when they can go back and visit again. Crows can recognize human faces and remember which ones are a threat. But alas owls cannot rotate their heads 360 degrees. A mere 270 degrees is it.
What is the worst thing you can do when it comes to Black bears? Well, obviously get between a mother and her cubs, right? Turns out that’s a Grizzly bear thing. Since Black bears are expert climbers, mama is more likely to run than stand and fight. She knows her cubs can get away. Consequently, climbing a tree to get away from a black bear is not a great idea either. Some say bears can’t run downhill because of their short legs. Yes, they can, and running is never the right choice when faced with a predator. Always back away slowly but don’t count on bells to avoid a surprise encounter. Studies show bears don’t notice them as being out of the ordinary and treat them as they would a bird or other background noise.
Other bear myths are just silly. Like the one that bears are attracted to menstrual blood. Why only bears? This one appears to date back to a tragedy in 1967 when two women were killed by a Grizzly in Glacier National Park. One was on her period and despite no scientific evidence to back it up a myth was born. Another particularly goofy belief is that bears give birth completely unaware while hibernating. In reality, bears enter a lighter state of sleep called torpor from which they can awake more quickly to avoid danger and give birth.
Circling back to the spooky Halloween theme we come to the myth that we unknowingly swallow spiders in our sleep. There are many versions of this one from four spiders yearly to swallowing a POUND over a lifetime. Its enough to make a person sleep wearing a gas mask, am I right? There is no scientific evidence that this is true. Spiders would be stupid to approach a huge breathing hole and actually enter it.
Another common story is butterflies can’t fly if you touch them. Likely another tale concocted to keep curious fingers away from strange creatures, it is completely false. Consider the fact the longest documented flight by a migrating monarch butterfly was 2,750 miles. Even though they may look fragile, butterflies are very tough creatures. Bees, on the other hand, have a reputation for toughness but there is a belief that they die after stinging. This is partially true when it comes to honey bees. If they sting something with a thick skin, their barbed stingers can become lodged in their victim, tearing loose from the bee’s abdomen and leading to its death in minutes.
While not necessarily spooky but certainly scary to locals is our resident big cat, the cougar. Like wolves they are often accused of killing for sport, but like wolves it is merely a survival tool, not a thrill. While cougars are adept tree climbers, they do NOT jump out of trees to attack people. They stalk and rush prey on the ground. Merely seeing one does not mean the animal is stalking you. If a cougar doesn’t intend to be seen, it isn’t.
I asked Bob McCoy, of the Mountain Lion Foundation, for other common misconceptions. His list was extensive including people believing cougars drag deer into trees to cache them (save for later), thinking our population of the big cats has exploded over the last several years, blaming them for every lost pet and even believing Cougars and Mountain Lions are two different animals. All untrue according to Bob.
Please share these debunked stories with everyone you know and every time you see one repeated on social media. Together we can stop misinformation and fear from harming our relationship with the animal kingdom.
[Contributing writer Melissa Grant is a North Bend resident, wildlife enthusiast and pet trainer and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs.]