No haunted house for Halloween is complete without a scary bat, a spooky owl and a sly, skittering spider. Area yard decorations feature bug-eyed spiders, hooting owls and flapping bats all ready to give kids the critter jitters.
Certain creepy creatures are just naturally synonymous with Halloween. But why? Do spiders, bats and owls deserve a bad rap every October?
By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times)
David Bruns knows a thing or eight about arachnids and why we find them so awful and threatening. Bruns, a Missouri Department of Conservation education consultant at Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood, keeps live spiders in his office year-round.
“Spiders can be pretty freaky looking when seen close-up, with their hairy bodies, spiny legs, bulging eyes, and fangs,” noted Bruns. “Halloween is the annual occasion when we celebrate spiders, even though we celebrate them as big, scary monsters.
“Spiders, and their webs, are associated with witches and dark places such as graveyards,” added Bruns. “Humans have invented superstitions and folklore surrounding spiders since time immemorial. Not all of these are negative, in some traditions spiders are signs of luck and good fortune.”
Bruns said that although there have been studies suggesting fear of spiders may be wired into our DNA, in his own experience he has observed that younger children are not likely to exhibit fear of spiders, provided they spend time with adults who aren’t afraid of spiders.
“This suggests to me that this fear of spiders is primarily learned,” said Bruns. “Other research has indicated that debilitating fear of spiders can be essentially cured in as little as three hours through exposure therapy.”
Bruns said movies such as “Harry Potter,” “Arachnophobia” and “Indiana Jones” are not the best public relations for spiders. Movies portray them in a frightful manner for maximum effect.
According to Bruns, it’s not harmful to celebrate spiders along with zombies, vampires and werewolves as fantastical monsters at Halloween. It’s all fun, but to balance things out, we ought to applaud spiders on other occasions for their ecosystem services.
“Even a kindergartner knows that spiders kill insect pests,” said Bruns in defense of the eight-legged arthropods. “Spiders don’t carry diseases like ticks and mosquitoes; they don’t attack us with stingers like yellow jackets can; and they don’t damage our property or landscaping like termites, Japanese beetles and emerald ash borers.
“The reality is the vast majority of spider species, including pretty much every one we run across in Missouri’s outdoors, are basically innocuous,” Bruns said.
Give Bats A Break
Shelly Colatskie, another Missouri Department of Conservation expert at Powder Valley, said it’s time to give bats a break once we finish flying off the handle about them at Halloween. She said bats are unfairly associated with many horrible diseases.
“Bats are likely associated with Halloween because of all the vampire and Dracula stories and legends,” said Colatskie. “Of course, there are vampire bats, but they do not suck blood after biting their prey. There is an anti-coagulant that lets the blood continue and bats actually lap the blood of their prey — chickens, cows and horses.”
Colatskie said bats have always gotten a bad rap for diseases such as rabies and Ebola. She said skunks are the number one carrier of rabies in Missouri.
“Rabies is rare in that less than 0.5 percent of 1 percent of bats actually have rabies,” said Colatskie. “Though to be extra cautious, those without rabies vaccinations should not handle bats. Bat biologists are required to have pre-exposure rabies vaccinations and routine blood work to make sure the vaccination is working properly.”
Colatskie has been working with bats for more than a decade and she has no fear of animated flying bats or bats hanging upside down for a spell.
“I used to be afraid of bats and never thought I would be working with bats as a job,” said Colatskie. “Because of graduate school, I have spent the past 10 years studying and loving bats.
“The fear of bats is certainly learned,” she added. “My daughter, who is 3 now, has seen bats since she was 6 weeks old. I can tell you that she loves bats.”
According to Colatskie, bats are estimated to be worth at least $961 million in agricultural value in Missouri. They control crop pests such as corn earworm moths, tobacco and tomato hornworm moths and gypsy moths. Bats eat mosquitoes and a variety of moths, beetles and other flying insects. Bats help protect ecosystems, both outdoors and in caves.
“Some cultures, such as the Native American, Mayan and Chinese, see the bat as spiritual or as a god,” said Colatskie. “Worldwide, many people fear bats because of the vampire and Dracula stories. It’s unfortunate.”
Owls: Give A Hoot
Mark Glenshaw, sometimes referred to as the Owl Man of Forest Park, gives more than a hoot about owls – and not just at Halloween. Glenshaw gives owl talks all over Missouri and Illinois. He also leads evening “Owl Prowls” in the woods of Forest Park.
“Not only are owls night predators but most owls fly silently due to the construction and materials of their feathers,” said Glenshaw. “Also, many of their vocalizations are quite affecting and easily interpreted as scary. All of this makes for an animal easily associated with Halloween.
“I think fear of owls is both primeval and learned,” noted Glenshaw. “As a diurnal species, humans understandably have a fear of the dark and the critters who, unlike us, thrive at night. Associating owls with death, sorcery, illness, ghosts and the like simply enhances this fear. In many areas of the world owls are seriously feared and, unfortunately, persecuted.”
During his owl prowl programs, Glenshaw points out how owls can move their heads almost 270 degrees. It’s an amazing anatomical feat met with both awe and unease. Owls are the only birds with binocular vision like humans, so they can present a mirror action that is simultaneously alluring and discomforting for humans.
Glenshaw said he is glad Halloween comes but once a year, because owls deserve a better image than they get on this scariest of nights. He praised Jane Yolen’s book, “Owl Moon,” about a father and daughter seeking out a Great Horned Owl to enjoy its marvels.
“We need to balance an understanding and appreciation of owls while maintaining certain culture associations with them in way that does not harm them,” said Glenshaw. “Owls are fantastic animals with ecological benefits for both nature and humans.”