Invasive bat found at airport

By Paul Drewes
Published On: Apr 04 2012 09:59:08 PM HST
Updated On: Apr 05 2012 09:57:07 AM HST

A passenger at the Honolulu International Airports interisland terminal was spotted playing with a little brown bat.

HONOLULU -

Hawaii has dodged another bullet when it comes to invasive species, according to the state Department of Agriculture, after a bat that could carry rabies was found at the Honolulu International Airport.

But, the latest discovery also showed how vulnerable the islands are to incoming animal threats.

On Monday, at the Honolulu International Airport interisland terminal, a passenger was spotted playing with a little brown bat which had probably stowed away in a plane's cargo.

"These look like they are hitchikers," said Carol Okada with the Department of Agriculture.

The tiny mammal was only nine inches long but came with a big threat.  It can be a carrier of rabies, a disease not in Hawaii.

"We are rabies free and we need to keep it that way," said Okada.

It turned out the bat did not carry the disease, which was lucky for the passenger.

The last time an invasive bat was found here it did have rabies and everyone who came in contact with the bat got rabies shots.

But nearly as troubling is the fact the bat got out of the contained cargo section and into a heavily populated area.

Invasive species inspectors didn't see the animal, because the inspectors may not have been there.

Just a few years ago, inspectors were working at the airport nearly 24 hours a day.

They met every plane to look at cargo and passengers to make sure invasive species didn't get in.

But now, only daytime inspections take place, after the staff was cut in half.

"We are far short.  At the airport we used to have over 20 inspectors. We now have 10 or so.  We need to beef it up," said Okada.

This is the third time this year dangerous invasive species were caught sneaking into the islands.  Just last month, it was a dengue fever-carrying mosquito.

There are only 60 inspectors statewide and they cover all the airports and ports.  But, there used to be 95.  Okada is concerned without more inspectors, more threats just like the little brown bat will reach Hawaii.

"We're hoping to get our inspectors back in force to the full numbers," said Okada.

Instead of getting more employees, the Department of Agriculture is now fighting to keep the ones it has.

Funding for about two dozen invasive species experts comes from special funds and has to be passed by lawmakers this legislative session.

Until additional funds are secured, Okada said she can't hire any more inspectors.

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