Sickly rabid bat lying down on a concrete stair
A small, lethargic bat found on the outdoor stairs of a home in central Berkeley tested positive for rabies on May 6, 2023. Credit: Reza Sirafinejad

A bat infected with rabies was found near a home in central Berkeley earlier this month.

On May 5, Berkeley resident Reza Sirafinejad spotted the “very lethargic” winged mammal on the back stairs of his home on Roosevelt Avenue near Allston Way. Sirafinejad, who had never seen a bat in Berkeley, ran to tell his wife and 4-year-old daughter Eliana, who insisted he stand far away from it as “its ears were huge” and would be easily disturbed by noise.  

Eliana told her parents she wanted to “take care of it.” “I felt like ‘oh no,’” said Eliana, who noted the bat was around the size of her hand. “I was just worried about it.”

Sirafinejad, who thought the small bat had perhaps flown into a window and was still recovering from the impact, called the Berkeley Animal Care Services for help. Their advice was to stay away from it and wait and see if it would leave on its own. When he checked again later that evening, the bat was nowhere to be found.

But the next morning, the bat had returned, and was clinging to the side of their house, roughly 2 feet from the stair they had originally found it on. Sirafinejad called animal care, which removed the bat and took it to the Department of Health Care Services’ lab in Richmond, where it was euthanized and tested positive for rabies. 

See a suspicious animal? Call Berkeley Animal Care Services at 510-981-6600

The city recommends Berkeley residents take necessary precautions, which include vaccinating all pet dogs and cats, and stay vigilant for other rabid bats and peculiar behavior in pets, said Ron Torres, the city’s environmental health specialist. There’s no sure way to know if an animal has rabies by looking at it, as some animals may not appear ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC recommends you stay away from wildlife and immediately notify your local animal control officer if you notice the following:

  • general sickness
  • problems swallowing
  • excessive drool or saliva
  • an animal that is overly aggressive
  • an animal that bites at imaginary objects (sometimes called “fly biting”)
  • an animal that appears tamer than you would expect
  • an animal that’s having trouble moving or may even be paralyzed
  • a bat that is on the ground

Rabies is fatal to humans once symptoms start — there’s no known cure. If you’ve come in contact with any wildlife (especially if you’ve been bitten or scratched), the CDC recommends you contact a health care or public health professional immediately, as rabies can spread to other people and pets.

If the virus, which infects the central nervous system and causes brain disease, is caught early on, it can be treated via a series of shots in the arm — one dose of rabies immune globulin, followed by four doses of rabies vaccine over the course of two weeks. 

Rabies alert on a telephone pole in central Berkeley
On May 11, 2023, the city delivered handouts to homes and posted rabies alerts on telephone poles on Roosevelt Avenue between Allston Way and Addison Street and on Allston Way between McGee Avenue and Grant Street. Credit: Iris Kwok

Contact with infected bats is the leading cause of human rabies deaths in the U.S.; seven out of 10 people who die from rabies in the U.S. were infected by bats. Bats have very small teeth, so bite marks may go undetected. Skunks, raccoons and gray foxes are also primary carriers of rabies. 

Rabid animal cases occasionally pop up in Berkeley; between 1996 and 2018 there were 12 total cases, almost entirely bats. The most recent case occurred in 2021, when a rabbit near the Safeway on Shattuck Avenue was reported and tested positive. In Berkeley, the risk of rabies remains constant throughout the year, with no month more likely than the rest. Torres said he does not recall any cases of humans contracting rabies since 2018, when he began working for the city. 

Alameda County has been declared a “rabies area” since 1958, according to the city. But the county has not seen any confirmed human cases from rabies since 1980, said Daniel Wilson, the community relations coordinator at the Alameda County Vector Control Services District. There have been 15 fatalities statewide since 1980.

In recent years, Alameda County has logged between one and three rabid bat cases per year through passive surveillance, meaning bats are tested when they are dead or ill and in testable condition. Wilson said that most suspect human exposures in the county have been treated by the vaccine. 

“If you’ve had cases in your neighborhood, I would be very leery about letting your animal … or pet roam freely without some type of supervision,” Torres said. “You as a pet owner know your pet, and if your pet is acting strange or a little off, that’s already a sign that maybe you should have it looked at.” 

Sirafinejad found out that the bat tested positive on May 11, when a city worker knocked on his door and delivered a handout. (Torres said handouts were delivered to homes and posted on telephone poles on Roosevelt Avenue between Allston Way and Addison Street and on Allston Way between McGee Avenue and Grant Street.) 

For Sirafinejad, the incident was a reminder to be cautious of wild animals, even if your intentions are harmless. He had briefly considered feeding the sickly bat some watermelon, but decided against it.

It was also a reminder of the wisdom of young children like 4-year-old Eliana, who took instructions to not disturb wildlife very seriously. She now hopes to work for animal control when she’s older.

“Then I could actually touch the bat,” Eliana said. “Because you have gloves on.” 

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...