Man Dies from Rabies After Hand-Feeding Bat - Should You Help Wildlife in Fire Areas?

ANIMAL WATCH-On November 4, Gary Giles, 55, of Moroni, Utah, died after contracting rabies from handling and feeding a bat. Giles is the first recorded rabies death in Utah in 74 years. 

Giles daughter, Crystal Sedgewick, said, “'My dad has always been a giver.” 

"The bats never hurt us, and we were always catching them in our hands and releasing them outside because you hear all the time about how bats are good for the insect population and you don’t want to hurt them," Juanita told KSL.com. 

"The bats would lick our fingers, almost like they could taste the saltiness of our fingers, but they never bit us." (Rabies can be transmitted through saliva, by entering the mucous membranes in the nose or eyes or through even a microscopic break in the skin.) 

"I've always thought bats were kind of cute, but I had no idea the kind of risk we were at," Juanita said. "We would wake up in the night and they would be walking on our bed." 

Giles obviously believed he was doing a good thing for these animals, but was he? With the recent destruction of habitat due to wildfires throughout much of California, his tragic death raises a question: Is helping wildlife necessary or wise?  

Giles' rabies infection first presented as intense back and neck pain, so he went to the emergency room on October 19, where he was diagnosed with a likely pulled muscle. Those symptoms quickly progressed to numbness and tingling in his arms, followed by muscle spasms, seizures, and delusional behavior, according to the family. 

He was taken off life support after the effects of the rabies had left him with no brain activity for days. 

Human rabies is almost always fatal, with death occurring within days of these types of advanced symptoms, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states. 

The majority of rabies cases reported to the CDC each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. “If you find yourself near a bat, dead or alive, do not touch, hit, or kill it,” Dallin Peterson, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said in a statement. 

While about 7,000 cases of rabies in animals are reported to federal officials each year, human rabies is rare in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

With Gary Giles' death, there have been only 56 cases diagnosed since 1990. But the threat still exists. 

Juanita Giles said she and other family members are receiving rabies vaccinations now. 


In January 2018, a 6-year-old Florida boy died from rabies after being scratched by infected bat, CBS reported. Although the boy's father washed the wound, he did not take the child to the hospital because "he cried when he was told he would get shots." The child developed symptoms one week later and soon died. 

A few months later, a coyote that tested positive for rabies bit 8 people in suburban Westchester, New York, before being shot and killed by police. All the bite victims immediately received successful preventive treatment. (Although the cost varies, a course of rabies immune globulin and four doses of vaccine given over a two-week period typically exceeds $3,000.) 

After rabies death, it is unknown how Delaware woman was exposed 

Delaware health officials say they do not know how a Kent County woman who died of rabies last week was exposed to the disease, according to an August 27, 2018, report in the Delaware News Journal. The last known person to die of rabies in Delaware was a 4-year-old boy in 1941.   

Dr. Thomas Fekete, chair of the Department of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, said the woman (whose identity was withheld) was admitted to a Delaware hospital after becoming sick with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. Her condition quickly worsened and she was transferred to a Pennsylvania hospital for treatment.  

The unidentified woman did have an indoor cat. There are also feral cats in her community, which have been trapped and are being observed.  

Rabies is a virus that spreads through the nerves to the spinal cord and eventually travels to the brain, where it multiplies, officials said. The confirmation a person died of rabies typically comes from an autopsy, particularly of the brain since that's where the virus kills the victim, Fekete said. There is no routine test that will show if a living patient has rabies. 

Also, in August 2018 a rabid beaver attacked a 7-year-old girl and her father during a kayaking trip, according to FOX13Now. 

The CDC recommends vaccination immediately upon potential exposure, rather than waiting for any sort of rabies symptoms to develop. Symptoms may take days, months, or even up a year to become apparent, and that is too late. If left untreated, rabies is almost always fatal in humans. 


On May 6, 2011, the CDC confirmed the first-ever case of human rabies in Humboldt County, California, when an eight-year-old girl, named Precious Reynolds, developed encephalitis—brain inflammation--and tests revealed she had rabies contracted from contact with a feral or wild cat near her school when “it scratched her on the arm during recess." Precious said, “The cat looked like a regular cat.” 

Precious Reynolds became the third person in the United States known to recover from rabies infection without receiving the rabies vaccine, through the efforts of a team of physicians, nurses and therapists at UC Davis Children's Hospital. 

Jean Wiedeman, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases, cautioned parents to admonish their children to avoid any and all contact with wild or feral animals — particularly bats, which are small and can be picked up by a child. 

If exposed, Wiedeman said, rabies is completely preventable with a vaccine that is far more sophisticated than the multiple painful inoculations of the past. 

Talk to your children about informing you of any animal scratching or biting them. Instruct them not to pick up any sick, injured or dead animals and to immediately inform an adult if they encounter one. 


In the city of Los Angeles, LA Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette advises that the department has a wildlife specialist. The LAAS website states: For an injured, distressed or deceased wild animal or other wildlife concerns, contact LA Animal Services at 888-452-7381


Rabies can cause animals to either act hostile and aggressive or to become very approachable. Experts advise us that it is normal for wild animals to show fear of humans. If they do not, they may be ill and should be avoided. 

Animals infected with rabies, like raccoons and bats--which are the most common source of human exposure--may also appear to be foaming at the mouth, as the disease causes excessive saliva production. Remember that their saliva can be as deadly as a bite and can be transferred to a human who handles a pet that has had an encounter with an infected animal. Wear plastic or rubber gloves while washing the pet thoroughly with soap and water and transport it to a veterinarian promptly.

Currently, wildfires in California are leaving a trail of destruction, but for some wildlife species that have evolved to live with fire, the scenario is not necessarily so dire for animals, National Geographic advises in What do animals do in Wildfires?  

In these regions, "wildlife have a long-standing relationship with fire," says ecosystem ecologist Mazeika Sullivan of the Ohio State University. "Fire is a natural part of these landscapes …. It is obvious that some animals have some ability to escape the heat. Birds may fly away, mammals can run, and amphibians and other small creatures burrow into the ground, hide out in logs, or take cover under rocks. And other animals, including large ones like elk, will take refuge in streams and lakes," Sullivan states. 

There are winners and losers, she says. Many species actually require fire as part of their life history. Fire flushes out prey for such animals as bears, raccoons and raptors. Several species of birds may even help spread fires in Australia, some research suggests, as doing so may help flush out small animals for them to eat. (Read "Under Fire" in National Geographic magazine.)  

Heat from the flames can stimulate some fungi, like more mushrooms, to release spores. Certain plants upon which wildlife depends will seed only after a blaze. Without fire, those organisms can't reproduce—and anything that depends on them will be affected. 

So, while fire may be devastating to human habitats, it can be a healthy occurrence for a forest and some of the animals that live there. 

An LA Animal Services officer--who does not claim to be a wildlife expert--explained simply that the environment constantly undergoes this type of renewal. When a tree is cut down or brush is removed for any reason, all the insects and small animals that inhabit it and depend upon it for protection and sustenance lose their homes and food sources and must adjust. 


In July 2018, San Diego News 8 reported that residents across the region reported an increase of coyote sightings around their homes. 

The San Diego Humane Society said the uptick in sightings is normal during the summer months, but the increase in sightings can also be tied to the recent wildfires. 

“Many wild animals get displaced from these fires. Especially with coyotes, they run and flee just like any other animal,” said community outreach educator Carly Padilla. 

Residents were advised that if they encounter a coyote, they should keep their eyes on the animal and slowly back away. “Never run away from a coyote...you don’t want to become prey. Be big, bad and loud.” 

Padilla also said, "Do not feed coyotes. When people intentionally feed coyotes, they get more and more used to humans, which is never a good thing for a coyote.” She also advised to keep your pet’s food and water inside. 


"If you live ANYWHERE near the forest fires that are decimating California PLEASE be aware that the animals are fleeing the fires and they may show up in your yards. The forestry department is URGING you to bring your animals in at night and let the wild ones pass through. Please put out buckets of water for them — they are scared, exhausted, and have also lost their homes — they need to refuel." 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service confirmed for SNOPES that they are not the “forestry department” that allegedly urged people to leave water out for wildlife. 

Regarding how — or if you should — help animals evading a wildfire, John Griffin, director of urban wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said:

In this situation it’s just better not to have an intervention, because [animals] are extremely resilient and they’re aware of other food or water sources. Trying to interfere with that, you don’t know that interfering won’t cause an issue. If they’re truly injured and require assistance, that’s a different set of circumstances. 

Peter Tira, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, also discourages interacting with wildlife, saying:  If you encounter a wild animal in our neighborhood, leave it alone. Fire or no fire, just let the animals be.  

While well-intentioned, following the advice in the social media meme may do more harm than good, said Tira. (The meme was re-tweeted in 2017 by L.A.-area celebrities and animal rights activists, including the musician/activist Moby.)  


“In a wildfire, you should let the animals take care of themselves. It is detrimental to put food and water out for them because then they become dependent on people,” said Tira. “And that never ends well for the animals." 

"Mobile animals, such as birds, deer, bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes scatter at the first sign of flames. They instinctively know how to survive and where to find a water source, he said. Snakes, wood rats and other burrowing animals will dig a hole and allow the fire to sweep over them," he said. 

Putting out water is the same as leaving food. It will habituate the wild animal to return to your home.

“You are not doing them a favor by attracting them to dwellings that catch fire,” Tira said. And after the fires are out and life returns to normal, visiting mountain lions may not welcomed by your pet dog or cat." Nor by you and your neighbors. 

Read also: 

Rabies is on the Rise! Here's How to Protect Your Pets  

Rabid Coyote Attacks Signal Growing Danger to Humans, Pets   

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.