A team of conservationists say that in order for the public to help bats, they need to be perceived as less scary.

Publishing their results in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife, authors from Cornell University’s Center for Conservation Social Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and National Park Service surveyed landowners in New York State to see if they would take action to conserve bats. This could include direct action such as building bat houses, or indirect actions such as supporting legislation to protect bats or donating to bat conservation groups.

They found that people who believed rabies had severe health consequences were less likely to say they would take direct actions to help bats. The authors say that perceptions about rabies is a lens through which some landowners, an important audience who can make a difference regarding long-time recovery of bats, filter messages and determine whether or not to take actions to protect bats.

Additionally, direct actions were predicted by how much people believed their actions could help bats, and how much responsibility they felt for bat conservation. Intentions to take indirect actions were predicted by whether people generally supported values favoring living things and the environment.

Understanding why private property owners take actions to conserve bats has become increasingly important in U.S. states where the fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) causing white-nose syndrome (WNS) has decimated cave-hibernating bat populations.

The authors recommend balanced conservation messages that address public health threats from bats and human-caused threats to bats to inspire conservation action. Such messaging might emphasize that the potential risk of rabies infection, while real, is very low, but also include information about the benefits of bats and the devastating impacts of WNS on bats in North America. The latter could focus on how landowners can help in the recovery of bats by maintaining features on their property that bats like for roosting such as standing dead trees or bat boxes. Doing so, will benefit landowners and the environment as bats may provide excellent control for insects and other agricultural pests.

Said Dr. Heidi Kretser, WCS Conservation Social Scientist and co-author of the study: “Knowing that fears about human health may predict involvement in bat conservation, conservationists should address those concerns directly while also encouraging accurate risk perceptions and informing people about the economic and environmental benefits of bats.”