Family of three finds 1,000 bats in their new home

The family is now left with an uninhabitable house, medical debt and no legal recourse.

When Mackenzie Powell and Tom Riecken came across the listing for a 30-year-old Victorian-style house in a sparse neighborhood near Deception Pass State Park, they thought they found the perfect place to raise their newborn son, Robert, away from busy King County.

Little did they know, the house was already claimed by a colony of 1,000 little brown bats who have been filling their walls with poop.

In just a few months, the family’s lives were turned upside down as they were left with an uninhabitable house, medical debt, expensive renovation work that insurance won’t cover and no legal recourse.

Due to the size of the colony and the volume of guano, the Island County Health Department issued an imminent health hazard warning for histoplasmosis, taping a sign onto the house’s front door. While bats can carry rabies, they are also linked to histoplasmosis, an infection caused by a fungus that is found in large clumps of bat or bird poop. The infection can range from mild to life-threatening.

“I never would have put my baby at risk and moved into that house if I had known,” Powell said.

When they moved into the house, Robert was only 5 months old, which makes him particularly vulnerable to the infection.

Now, they have temporarily returned to King County, while Riecken regularly checks the house.

After 12 visits to the emergency room, the family has maxed out its insurance-covered costs and has to pay an additional $14,000 of medical expenses out of pocket for completing their post-exposure rabies series.

During the process of buying the house, the couple didn’t notice any particular red flags. When they hired a professional to conduct an inspection of the property, the report mentioned the presence of “some droppings, scat, tunneling, holes and/or burrowing in the attic space caused by recent/past rodent activity.” The inspector recommended checking the seller’s disclosure or asking if the issue had been addressed, and said it was difficult to determine how recent the activity was.

Powell and Riecken did not make a big deal out of it, thinking it was an easy fix.

“We were thinking ‘Hey, what house in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have a rat or mouse?’” Powell said.

The property, however, was bought from an estate. In Washington state, estates are exempt from filling out Form 17, or a seller disclosure statement informing the buyer of any problems within the property. Therefore, Riecken said, there was no seller disclosure.

Sarah Schmidt, a bat expert who lives on Whidbey, explained that the attic is likely inhabited by female bats and their young. In the summer, pregnant females gather together to have their babies, which keep each other warm while their moms are out hunting.

“A maternity roost for 1,000 little brown bats is not unusual,” she said. “Obviously, what is unwelcome is that it’s in someone’s house rather than under a bridge or in a barn.”

Bats can fly long distances before they find a place they deem safe enough to raise their babies.

“They need a certain temperature and humidity, so when they find a place that works for them, they’ll stay very loyal to it,” Schmidt said. “So they’ll continue going back to that roost for generations.”

About a month after moving into the new home, the couple had their first bat encounter when they woke up to find a bat flying in their bedroom. In rural areas, this is a normal occurrence. Not thinking much of it, Riecken caught the critter with a bucket and released it outside.

It was early summer, and the bats were migrating from their winter roost, where they hybernate during the cold season every year before returning to their summer residence to have their babies, as Schmidt explained. Inevitably, the bat encounters only became more frequent.

Powell’s sister was visiting from out of town and was being hosted in the furnished attic, where she would hear scratching sounds behind the walls. Outside, bats were pouring out of a small gap in the attic’s window.

A pest control worker estimated there were about 1,000 bats living in their attic, saying it was the worst residential infestation he had ever seen.

At that point, Powell decided to leave with the baby, and the family was informed they needed to start their rabies series. To cope with the stress, Powell is now taking antidepressants and worries the baby is feeling the stress, too.

“It was a lot more than I originally realized,” Powell said. “The Department of Health tried to make me feel better by saying ‘Hey, only one in 100 bats has rabies.’ I’ve got a little baby. That doesn’t make me feel better at all!”

A few weeks ago, overwhelmed by the situation, Riecken sought advice on Reddit, where 1,000 users gave their input. An anonymous user shared the report of an inspection done on the house six months prior to their inspection. The first inspection showed evidence of bats living in the house.

Neighbors have also told them they were aware of the bats for years.

Powell and Riecken said they feel betrayed that the seller did not disclose the presence of so many bats, which have been there for at least a decade.

The insurance company denied their claim, arguing the issue was pre-existent and that evidence of pests was provided in the report. Riecken and Powell believe this is unfair due to the actual size of the issue, which was not indicated in the report.

If they keep the house, they will need to do extensive repair and sanitation work on the ceiling and walls, which according to a realtor friend of the couple, might cost around $150,000 just for the materials. If they don’t, and their mortgage is foreclosed, they will lose the money they already spent on the property, and the problem might be passed down to another family, which Powell and Riecken don’t want to happen.

The also couple wants to propose homebuyer protections to the legislature in Olympia.

“If we can’t solve this for ourselves, maybe we can protect someone else,” Riecken said. “This could kill someone. It could kill a baby.”

Despite the unpleasant situation, Riecken and Powell don’t hold a grudge against their tiny roommates, who they want to humanely evict by exclusion.

“As homeowners we could exterminate, but we won’t because it’s just wrong,” Powell said. “They should be living in the woods.”

According to Schmidt, an exclusion would entail sealing all of the entrances except for the main one, creating a one-way exit. After a week, that entrance can be sealed. She advises people to do exclusions in late summer.

“You don’t want to shut out the mother bats when there’s babies inside,” she said.

Powell and Riecken are hoping to get help from the community to build bat houses that will host the evicted bats when they return next summer. The Department of Fish and Wildlife told them the agency might grant permits to build the houses on Hoypus Hill, located within Deception Pass State Park.

Like them, all the bats want is a safe place to raise their babies.

To help fund the exclusion and repair work, Powell and Riecken have launched a kickstarter on Indiegogo, aptly named “Bat & Breakfast,” offering contributors the opportunity to spend a few nights in the house once it’s renovated.

To learn more about the initiative, visit Bat & Breakfast – Save our bat-infested dream home | Indiegogo.

A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that the “bats migrated from the south, where they spend the cold season.” The bats do not migrate south for the winter, but they hybernate in their winter roost, which is in the area. We regret the error.

In April, Powell and Riecken bought a 30-year-old house near Deception Pass State Park. (Photo by Luisa Loi/Whidbey News-Times)

In April, Powell and Riecken bought a 30-year-old house near Deception Pass State Park. (Photo by Luisa Loi/Whidbey News-Times)

Bat guano can be seen on the left side of the photo, under the vent. According to Powell and Riecken, the guano wasn’t there when they bought the house. (Photo by Luisa Loi/Whidbey News-Times)

Bat guano can be seen on the left side of the photo, under the vent. According to Powell and Riecken, the guano wasn’t there when they bought the house. (Photo by Luisa Loi/Whidbey News-Times)