It started with scratching sounds in the ceiling. Then Jim Gillis said he found a small, dark bat in the bathroom of his town house this summer. Next, a neighbor in his building woke up in the middle of the night, screaming that a bat was flying overhead in her bedroom.
Exterminators found that bats had been living in the attic of Gillis' building in Barrington, leaving their droppings behind. Health officials advised the Gillises and their next-door neighbors, both families with young children, to get preventive rabies shots.
It turns out other residents of the Pickwick Place apartment complex say they've been plagued by bats for years. Village officials say the owner got rid of the bats in Gillis' building, but he and his neighbors say more needs to be done to put a permanent end to the problem.
"It's not right," Gillis said. "Every attic should be checked to make sure the droppings are out. People need to be aware, if you live here, there are bats here."
Bats are increasingly appreciated for the benefits they provide, especially gobbling up copious quantities of insects. But the Barrington infestation is a prime example of what happens when the flying mammals show up where they aren't wanted, and just how hard they can be to get rid of.
Pickwick Place is a development of 60 multilevel town houses that rent for about $1,500 a month and share common walls. It's near Baker's Lake, a bird sanctuary with a wooded area that naturalists say provides a natural habitat for bats.
Gillis showed a photo he said contractors took in his attic with bat droppings in the insulation. Breathing fumes from large amounts of droppings can cause histoplasmosis. The disease, whose symptoms are similar to pneumonia, is not common but can become serious if not treated.
Gillis, his wife and their two young children followed medical advice to get rabies shots and plan to get tested for histoplasmosis.
"Wouldn't you be ticked off to see your kids getting rabies shots?" he asked. "You can't take a chance."
After receiving a complaint from Gillis on July 23, the village of Barrington issued a citation to the property owner, Wilfred Jacobson & Co., for failure to maintain the building properly. Jacobson paid a $100 fine and this month hired a pest control company to remove the bats, clean out their droppings and the soiled insulation, and seal off openings into the building. He's now considered in compliance with village codes for that building, officials said.
But visits to the property last week suggested the problem has persisted elsewhere in the complex.
As dusk fell one day, about 25 bats emerged from inside the roof of another building and flew off. Another tenant of the complex reported having had a bat fly into his house this summer, and yet another resident said he'd gotten droppings on his car parked outside and had heard squeaking noises in his attic.
Resident Ron Knee said his wife screamed when she first saw a bat in their home about three years ago. Once was while they were watching television; another time they spotted a bat circling overhead when they woke up in the morning. Health officials advised the couple to get rabies shots in case they'd been bitten while they slept.
Knee said the property owner paid the bills for the rabies immunizations, which he said took about 10 shots. Health officials say the shots, while no longer painful injections in the abdomen, typically cost $2,000 to $7,000.
Meanwhile, workers patched openings to Knee's attic, and he plugged some gaps in the ceiling himself, but he said he still sees bats flying into open spaces in the roof.
"They make a creepy chirping sound," he said. "It's like 'Creature Features' here."
Gillis' neighbor, Diane Lenz, said she had bats in her town house three times, which sent her and her children screaming from their home. The family moved to a hotel until the bats were driven out, but she still fears they can get in through gaps in the walls.
"We're all afraid to go in there," she said, "but we don't have a whole lot of options."
Greg Summers, director of engineering and building for the village of Barrington, said officials only can respond to complaints. He was not aware of additional problems at the complex besides the building where Gillis and Lenz live but said he would send an inspector to look into it.
Jacobson, who also owns rental properties in Evanston, Glenview and Oak Park, did not return calls from the Tribune. But his property manager, Ron Bishop, said he and Jacobson have been very responsive to complaints about bats.
Bats converge outside the 50-year-old town house complex every year, Bishop said, but only occasionally have found their way inside homes. Bats that have been caught have been handed over to public health officials, he said, and all tested negative for rabies.
When Gillis complained about bats in his house, Bishop said he contacted an animal removal company. Officials there told him that bats commonly have offspring in the summer, and the pups need a month to six weeks to learn to fly. He said he was advised not to seal the attic off until September so the pups could fly out of one-way doors that were installed, a strategy that follows state recommendations. By law, it is illegal to kill a bat, and only licensed specialists may legally capture them.
Earlier this week, Bishop said he was not aware of bats in other units. After the Tribune's inquiry and a village inspection, he said, a crew from the pest removal company had begun work at the building where bats were seen last week.
He said Jacobson offered to pay any expenses necessary, including Lenz's hotel bill, which he said was nearly $4,000.
"The big thing with Mr. Jacobson is you take care of your tenants," Bishop said.
Joe Kath, bat specialist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said bats usually return to roost in the same places, so the issue needs to be resolved when it first comes to light.