When Lewis Garrett's daughter was young years ago, he found a bat in a shoebox in her closet.

Garrett, director of the Davis County Health Department, knows well that kids love to play with wild critters — and they don't understand the risks they may take by doing so. Parents need to teach them.

"Let wild animals be wild," is how JoDee Summers, an epidemiologist in the Utah Department of Health, puts it.

People who don't follow that advice run the risk of rabies exposure. And if symptoms develop, that disease is always fatal. So someone who might have been exposed likely will face an expensive five-shot series of after-the-fact vaccine. That's especially problematic because there is currently a shortage of rabies vaccine that could last for many months, experts warn.

Right now, as cold weather begins to creep in, bats are heading south for the winter. And they're migrating through Utah neighborhoods, which increases the chance people will be exposed to them — and to rabies.

This year, seven individuals in Davis County alone are known to have had physical contact with bats, and all but one had to undergo the vaccine series because the bats were unavailable for testing or were too decomposed to tell if they had rabies.

The state doesn't track rabies exposures statewide, said Tom Hudachko, state health spokesman. The state lab, though, tests animals that are suspected of having rabies. Of those, bats test positive most often, according to Summers. They're also tested in greater numbers because they're more likely to cross paths with people than other animals like foxes and raccoons.

Last year, school students were found to be playing with bats, including at two schools in Davis County, and there are recent reports of bats at West High in Salt Lake City. That means the bats are probably in other accessible locations, too.

"It wouldn't be such a problem if people would mind their own business and leave them alone," said Diane Keay of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

But they don't.

Rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system, usually from a bite. It's spread when a virus in an animal's bodily fluid gets into an open cut, wound, mouth or eyes. Keay said bat teeth are so tiny and sharp that they don't leave a mark and you may not know you were bit. If there's a question about exposure, health experts tend toward caution. You'll end up being treated, Keay said.

Not all bats carry rabies. But if one's where you can play with it, the risk goes up. Bats try to avoid people, so if you're coming in contact with one, it could well be sick.

The bottom line, said Garrett and other health officials, is that people should not touch bats, dead or alive. And teach your children to leave them alone.

People also need to be sure that their cats, dogs and ferrets have current rabies shots. If a pet becomes infected, it can infect you. An unvaccinated pet will be quarantined for six months or destroyed, since the test uses brain tissue, Summers said.

If you find a bat, call your county's animal-control office.

Experts warn that rabid animals may not exhibit any signs of the disease even though they're very contagious. Summers said that exposure time varies. It's a slow-moving virus, so the closer the exposure is to the brain, the less time you have. A bite on the neck requires faster action than one on the big toe.

Utah's skunk and raccoon populations are not infected with rabies like in some parts of the country. They can still be bitten by a rabid bat, though, and pass bat rabies on.

E-mail: [email protected]