RESIDENTS in strife for using air horns to scare off fruit bats have been told by the State Government the animals are not a health risk unless they are handled.
This is despite the spread of Hendra virus, which has claimed the lives of at least four people and, in the latest outbreak, resulted in the deaths of 15 horses and a pet dog.
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A brochure downplaying the health risks of flying foxes was handed to Gold Coast couple Robyn and Robert Burgess after their home was raided by Department of Environment and Resource Management officials on Thursday.
An air horn the couple had used trying to scare off a colony of flying foxes was confiscated and they were threatened with jail and a $100,000 fine if they persisted, The Courier-Mail revealed yesterday.
Officials gave the couple a brochure entitled "Living With Flying Foxes" which warns of the risks of lyssavirus - a rabies virus contracted from bat saliva - but says Hendra virus does not spread to humans direct from flying foxes.
This is despite uncertainty over how Hendra is spread and the unprecedented infection of pet dog Dusty, put down last week by order of authorities.
The flyer admits bats smell and are noisy "but are really not so bad when you get to know them".
"Flying foxes are not a health risk to you unless you are bitten or scratched, so please don't handle them," it says.
Lawyer Bill Potts, who Mr and Mrs Burgess called in after the DERM raid, said the advice was "most concerning" amid the Hendra virus outbreak.
He said the risks of Hendra should not be downplayed until more was known about it, especially now that domestic pets could be infected.
"The Burgesses have three cats and they have come inside with bat droppings. The uncertainty about how humans contract Hendra virus gives rise to considerable anxiety," he said.
Mr Potts said the Burgesses and their Southport neighbours would apply for a government permit to "move on" the bats.
"Damage mitigation permits" can be issued by DERM to ward off bats using devices including flares fired from shotguns, spotlights, smoke machines, "surround sound deterrent systems" and air horns.
But a spokesman for Environment Minister Vicky Darling said permits were usually only issued to local councils.
Southport MP Peter Lawlor urged the Gold Coast City Council to "pick up the phone and get this process moving".
He said the council had been given a permit to move a flying fox colony away from the Gold Coast Turf Club.
Southport councillor Dawn Crichlow said she had been trying to get action on the bat problem for 18 months. "The heavy-handed actions of DERM against the residents is an absolute disgrace," she said.
The colourful councillor, who staged a successful campaign to reduce an ibis plague on the Gold Coast - and once proposed to drug the birds and truck them out west - vowed to go into bat for long-suffering constituents living amid the Southport bat colony.
"I've been on to DERM and given them a good mouthful," she said.
Gold Coast-based federal Liberal MP Steve Ciobo said home raids by government officials armed with search warrants was "outrageous, Big Brother, jackboot stuff".
Bats in their belfry
The Department of Environment and Resource Management can issue permits, usually to councils, to disperse flying foxes by:
* Firing special flares from shotguns
* Using simulated birds of prey such as hawks
* Erecting electronic scarecrows
* Blasting them with sound
* Dazzling them with spotlights
* Banging metal objects
But a Queensland Department of Primary Industries report on flying fox research has found:
* Sound effects can initially be successful but they become accustomed to it if not met with real danger
* Bright lights can actually become a homing beacon for bats
* Scare guns can be successful at first but they will become accustomed to them if there is no danger
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