Monday, January 3, 2011

On flying-foxes: Homo troglodytus 2010

Who wins the award for publicly uttering the most erroneous, exaggerated and egregious statements about flying-foxes in 2010?

The nominees have much in common. All male, most of them politicians, they each propagate the fallacy that humans cannot live safely or harmoniously with flying-foxes. None demonstrates respect for evidence – the evidence that most people live peaceably with flying-foxes and that flying-foxes represent a low health risk.    

The competition for the Homo troglodytus award is fierce. Our judges have been arguing over the nominations for most of the day. Here now are the top 10 contenders.

PS. For those of you feeling defensive about this vilification of troglodytes, we sympathise with your concern and advise that the term is used for its original Greek meaning of ‘one who creeps into holes’ – because that’s what we think these nominees should do.

The top 10 contenders 
(in alphabetical order)

Ben Callcott, Mayor of Charters Towers

Mr Callcott has been part of a triumvirate of politicians (with Bob Katter and Shane Knuth, both featured below) campaigning against a flying-fox camp in town that has been persecuted in unsuccessful dispersal attempts for about a decade.
  • This has been going on for a long time. We've had a gutful of it and we are deadset sick of the fact that these bats can take over our habitat after all man is the top of the food-chain and hopefully it remains that…   I don't see the RSPCA as a credible body. They are basically city people who don't really understand animals. I've lived with horses, cattle and other animals all my life and I'll tell you that city people don't understand animals at all. They are just soft hearts and everything deserves a place, like when are they are going to legislate against the killing of rats?
Northern Miner, 19 November 2010
  • In previous years, some workers had been taken to hospital to have the insects [alleged mites from flying-foxes] removed, he said. ''The mites adhere to their skin like ticks,'' he said. ''If you attend the park you run the risk of these mites adhering to you. They're an insect-type thing with legs so they're fairly mobile bloodsuckers.'' Cr Callcott said the mites were living on the bats and residents were fearful they could spread disease.
Townsville Bulletin, 23 November 2010

Judges’ comment: Mr Callcott tries hard to portray Charters Towers residents as misunderstood victims of flying-foxes, and city folk as ignorant bleeding hearts. But he apparently is ignorant (or uncaring) of the fact that Brisbane and other cities host numerous flying-fox camps, and that there is nothing special about Charters Towers’ situation or their flying-foxes. People in hundreds of other locations manage to live peaceably with flying-foxes. See here for our previous blog covering some of the absurd claims about the health impacts of Charters Towers’ flying-foxes. 

John Cobb, Federal MP (National Party)

Speaking to Federal Parliament in support of a Bill to disperse flying-foxes from Maclean (introduced by MP Luke Hartsuyker, see below), Mr Cobb made grossly exaggerated claims about the arrival of flying-foxes in Orange.
  • This year, for the first time in living memory, flying foxes invaded Orange. This is an area with very serious apple orchards and fruit orchards to a large extent. The flying foxes inundated it, and all the state government did was allow some people to destroy up to 25. There were 25 million of the damn things around. I have nothing against flying foxes personally, but I do have something against allowing an animal to threaten livelihoods and schools.
Federal House of Representatives Hansard, 25 November 2010

Judges’ comment: According to state and federal environment departments, the total population of grey-headed flying-foxes (the species that was in Orange) is no more than about 400,000. Even by standards of political hyperbole, Mr Cobb's claim of 25 million flying-foxes around Orange is very silly. With counts showing there were only 5,000 flying-foxes in Orange, he was out by a factor of 5,000. He was also wrong about flying-foxes being new to Orange – they were recorded there in the 1970s.

John Davis, Mayor of Orange

Mr Davis claimed that the few thousand grey-headed flying-foxes roosting in Orange were causing great harm in town.
  • Mr Davis said yesterday’s site inspection showed him firsthand the devastation flying foxes caused to the trees they occupied. “The people that have these bats in their yards must be the most patient people in Orange,” he said. “Enough is enough now, they’ve now become prisoners in their own homes and the manure that is covering their yards, houses and cars is a health hazard.”
Central Western Daily, 30 March 2010

Judges’ comment: Flying-foxes roost in hundreds of urban sites in northern and eastern Australia without residents complaining. The colony in Orange was small, hung around for only a few weeks, and was unlikely to have been much of a bother for residents. (We heard that some of them actually enjoyed having bats in town, but it wasn’t something you said publicly.) And, as faecal matter goes, flying-fox faeces is really rather benign, consisting of rapidly digested fruit, nectar and pollen.

Luke Hartsuyker, Federal MP (National Party)

Mr Hartsuyker has run a campaign to rid Maclean of flying-foxes by introducing a Bill into Federal Parliament to approve their dispersal.
  • There has been an invasion of thousands upon thousands of bats around the high school … These flying foxes defecate over the school, its students and its teachers. The smell is revolting and the colony can be extremely noisy. They pose a risk of hendra virus and lyssavirus … And let us not forget the residents living close by. Their homes have become virtually uninhabitable because of the stench and the problems these flying foxes cause and of course a similar situation is occurring at the nearby TAFE.
Federal House of Representatives Hansard, 15 November 2010

Judges’ comment: Mr Hartsuyker is performing political stunts rather than proposing anything practical or helpful. There has already been a decade of unsuccessful dispersals at Maclean. Flying-foxes return each year because of good food resources during the time of birthing and raising young. It’s because of previous dispersals that many more Maclean residents now have flying-foxes roosting close to their houses. The health impacts have been greatly exaggerated. Lyssavirus can only be transmitted via a bite or scratch. Hendra virus is caught from horses, not flying-foxes. Other schools and communities on the east coast of Australia don’t have a problem sharing their environment with a flying-fox camp. The main difference in Maclean is that there are politicians who would rather make a name for themselves than make a difference.

Bob Katter, Federal MP (Independent)

Mr Katter had multiple rants about flying-foxes in 2010, most of them wildly exaggerating the health risks of flying-foxes, and the rest not making any sense.
  • We've got a terrible problem with deadly flying foxes. They're going to kill many more people than taipan snakes do in Australia.
7.30 Report, 22 August 2010
  • We have blood on our hands. We created the conditions that bring flying foxes in plague proportions that allow disease to spread quickly throughout their colonies and entire crops to be destroyed.
North Queensland Register, 11 January 2010
  • They’re dangerous and they’re in plague proportions. … Flying foxes are taking over towns in Kennedy…. Any true conservationist would also call for such a cull if they understood the dynamics of animal populations and put aside emotive arguments.
Agmates 28 May 2010
  • They're not going to go just after her [Kate Jones, Queensland’s Environment Minister] to force her to get rid of the bats, they are going to point out to the minister who is not giving us this permit, that by not giving us this permit, you have placed our lives in jeopardy. And she will be getting a letter from me before the end of this week clearly indicating to her that if anyone dies, then we are prosecuting her for criminal negligence.
Northern Miner, 30 November 2010
  • The 'gan-greeny' point of view is that we've invaded their habitat. Tell the nearest greenie that Charters Towers or Mareeba, prior to settlement was a bio-ecology where gecko lizard would have to take a cut lunch. Joe Moro, a farm leader from Mareeba, said there were farmers whose production was down 30-50 per cent as a result of bats. It's just another nail in the coffin of agriculture in Australia a country which within five years will not be able to feed itself.
Northern Miner, 26 November 2010

Judges’ comment: Mr Katter is weirdly obsessed by flying-foxes. Dangerous? Mr Katter must jump at his own shadow if he genuinely considers flying-foxes dangerous. Government health authorities say there are no health risks from living near a bat camp as long as the animals are not handled (and they make no exceptions for North Queensland). Mr Katter’s claim both that flying-foxes are in plague proportions and that greenies don’t understand population dynamics is embarrassing for him, for in the real world it’s not possible for flying-foxes to form plagues as they only have one young a year. We are also entertained by Mr Katter’s labelling of conservationists as “emotive”: anyone claiming that we have “blood on our hands” and suggesting that flying-foxes are deadlier than taipans might be letting his emotions run away with him.

Shane Knuth, Qld MP (LNP)

Like Mr Katter, Mr Knuth has had a lot of negative things to say about flying-foxes this year. He has vowed that if the LNP wins government in Queensland they will rid Charters Towers of flying-foxes for good.
  • We have to put up with the screeching, the parasites, and the excretion and be subjected to serious viruses they carry. … The minister needs to explain to nursing mums, the elderly and the residents on why they have refused [a permit for helicopter dispersal] while we have tens of thousands of bats living amongst us.
Townsville Bulletin, 16 November 2010
  • If everything else fails, helicopters, you name it, we [a future LNP Government] will cull the bats to ensure we protect the safety of every individual in Charters Towers… When it comes to moving flying foxes, I will guarantee that I will be support the Charters Towers residents, not party politics, we will remove the bats.
Northern Miner, 30 November 2010
  • The sick, the frail and the elderly have had enough of this. We have nursing mums who have hundreds of bats living above their roofs and homes. Would any Minister or Government member who has a child like to have their child living amongst this filth?
ABC, 16 July 2010

Judges’ comment: Mr Knuth’s political priority is to rid Charters Towers of flying-foxes, and he will conjure up any disease or parasite to justify this. Flying-foxes do carry a virus that can make people sick (one person has succumbed), but even nursing mothers need to be bitten or scratched to become infected. Just having bats in the general vicinity won’t do it. Mr Knuth is obviously employing the well-known political tactic of trying to whip up fear in voters against a perceived common enemy that only he can vanquish, if they'll vote him and his party into power. There have been multiple unsuccessful dispersal attempts in Charters Towers. Mr Knuth’s promise to kill the bats in Charters Towers if dispersals don’t work is a sad sign of things to come.

Kurt Kristoffersen (candidate for Clarence Valley Council in 2008 election)

Among numerous outlandish claims, Mr Kristoffersen claimed that flying-foxes are an invasive species from Thailand.
  • The National Parks and Wildlife Service adopted the flying fox in 1980 as a native animal… This has always been debatable as the first recorded sightings of the flying rat were in Thailand in 1912 by Professor Anderson…. It is believed that they migrated to the north of Western Australia and down the west coast and across to South Australia the Barossa and into NSW then QLD. Chromosomal studies by the Carnegie Museum of rodents and bats confirm the Thailand fruit bats and those found in Australia and New Guinea are of the same genetic banding. …  Studies have revealed they migrate similar to rats and behave in the social habits of raping their offspring, decimating their food source and transporting diseases from one next or “colony” to the next. A new colony is formed when a group of females get sick of being raped and find another temporary roost for themselves and their offspring …
Letter to Editor, Clarence Valley Review, 2 June 2010

Judges’ comment: It’s hard to know where to start with these claims as they are all such utter nonsense. Flying-foxes were well-known by Aborigines and recorded by Europeans when they first arrived. The NSW Government has always acknowledged flying-foxes as native animals but did not afford them the same protection under environment laws as other native animals until 1980. Sex is a mutual affair for flying-foxes, with females choosing the males they mate with.

Rob Messenger, Qld MP (Independent)

Mr Messenger has called on both major Queensland political parties “to commit to a public health policy of destroying flying fox colonies in urban areas if they were found to be carrying deadly diseases.”
  • … Mr Messenger said the animals should be eradicated or moved away from urban or populated areas immediately. “You only have to start shooting a few and they’ll go … We’ve got to show some common sense with this menace.”
Bundaberg Mail, 11 December 2010
  • Flying foxes shouldn’t be allowed to roost in urban environments anyway, but if they are then they must be tested for those deadly diseases. If the flying foxes are found not to have any deadly viruses, then of course there is no need to move the creatures, but if they are found to be carrying diseases then peoples lives are at risk.
Media release, 21 May 2010

Judges’ comment: At the risk of being repetitive… Mr Messenger ignores for his political convenience government health advice that living near a flying-fox colony is not a health risk. Shooting bats in urban areas would be far more dangerous than living with bats. Common sense is conspicuously absent from Mr Messenger’s proposal, as it is both unnecessary and impractical (there is no way of testing bats for lyssavirus without killing them all and colonies are not discreet populations).

John Molony, Mt Isa Mayor

Mr Molony was agitating for a permit from the state environment department to disperse a temporary camp of little red flying-foxes from Mt Isa.
  • We've had several complaints from residents about the bats, but we can't move them on until we get the okay from DERM. I personally think they're a pest and DERM needs to cull some of these things because all they're doing is terrorising people and dropping ticks and lice everywhere.
North West Star, 8 October 2010

Judges’ comment: Mr Molony, who runs a clothing shop, is another politician who thinks he knows more than health authorities and biologists about flying-foxes. Ticks? – try dogs; lice? – try children; terror? – try humans shooting flying-foxes.

Malcolm Weatherup, journalist, Townsville Bulletin

The Townsville Bulletin has been an enthusiastic participant in the campaign by Charters Towers politicians to get rid of the town’s flying-fox colony. Here is the contribution from one journalist (aka The Magpie).
  • Listen, mate, what about State Government requirements of State funerals for all flying foxes, accompanied by an honour guard of bats from Premier Blight's own private belfry? What about the mandated 21-rifle salute from a troop of Batburgh's second class citizens (those with two legs and no wings) as the tiny casket is lowered into the tastefully mounded pile of hendra-laced bat guano.
         But of course, the rifles will be pointed at the ground so no stray shot might hit any of the first class citizens hanging in the surrounding trees? … Such nonsense aside, this situation is sheer lunacy of the emperor's-got-no-clothes variety. Ben Callcott could barely disguise his frustration at the PC posing from this distant government so far from reality.
         Even the simperings of the relevant parrot, Sustainability Minister Kate Jones, only added to the sheer battiness of it all. After languidly drifting into town from afar, Minister Jones urged people not to touch dead bats (and to presumably dodge them as they fall dead on to footpaths and backyards).
         So correct The Magpie if he is wrong, but the situation seems to be 'we know it is possible these creatures have a deadly virus, and they're dying in increasing numbers of something, but no, you can't take measures to rid the town of them'.
         Except to say 'shoo'. Add a 't' and you have The Magpie's obvious solution.
Townsville Bulletin, 6 March 2010

Judges’ comment: Does this really pass for journalism in North Queensland? Magpies are known as smart birds – a pity Mr Weatherup doesn’t aspire to this. The flying-foxes in Charters Towers were dying of starvation not disease. Hendra is something that people only catch from horses and guano is not just any old bat-shit – it’s the stuff found in caves where microbats roost. Mr Weatherup appears to subscribe to the “if it moves, shoot it” school of wildlife management. 

And the winner is….

You’ll undoubtedly agree that each of these candidates qualifies for troglodyte status.

The judges have noted, “All nominees have excelled in spreading fear and loathing and avoiding evidence and common sense. For mostly political purposes, they have sought to create a fearsome monster out of a small native mammal, ignoring the experience of most Australians living with flying-foxes that it is no big deal.” 

But our judges have determined there is one standout nominee, head and shoulders above the rest of the field for the sheer volume, ferocity and wild inaccuracy of his statements on flying-foxes. Bob Katter is crowned Homo troglodytus 2010.

So, please creep down a hole, Mr Katter, and stay there a long time. 

We are not alone in recognising Mr Katter for his contribution to nonsense about flying-foxes: "Dispatches from the Edge" recognised him in their "Are you serious?" round up for 2010

As Crikey put it "I'm beginning to think that perhaps Katter's hat might be lined with tin foil"

(More on Katter’s bat wackiness in a future post).