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Halloween's Scariest Animals

By: Alex Lieber

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As nighttime falls, the creeping, slithering, stalking world arises, watched intently by a pale-faced moon. In the dead of night you may hear the sounds of this underworld stirring ... or you may not.

But they are still there.

With Halloween slinking up on us, we may notice the noise of animals more – our pets or the wildlife just outside the window. We delight in sparking the feelings of dread and fear in the stories of blood-sucking vampire bats, lurking wolves, crawly spiders, and of course the ever-present black cat.

Certain animals are tailor-made for delicious fear, like the vampire bat and the wolf. But as we explore the world of the scary, it's important to keep it all in perspective. We make up these stories about animals to entertain ourselves. They shouldn't be harmed because of our own, largely manufactured, fears.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're not lurking, just outside your window ...

The Vampire Bat

Few things are more chilling that the thought of a night creature that subsists on the living blood of another organism. The vampire bat has lived in our haunted imaginations for thousands of years.

Even before Bram Stoker's book, Dracula, our fear of blood-sucking animals was common, and many cultures from different periods have their own version of the story. The ancient Hebrews wrote of a woman that transformed into an owl, killing newborn babies and pregnant women. The ancient Greeks also believed in monsters that roamed the night, drinking blood and eating children. In India, ancient lore tells of a monster that hangs upside down during the day, like a bat. This creature is empty of its own blood and must drink the blood of others to live.

The idea of an animal living off the life force of another makes good copy, but the real bat is a lot more innocuous. Most subsist on insects. Of the hundreds of species of bats, only three actually drink blood, and only one drinks blood from mammals.

Bat Facts

  • Vampire bats need about two tablespoons of blood each day. If they go two days without blood, they'll starve to death.

  • Vampire bats have chemicals in their saliva that prevent blood clotting, so they can feed longer.

  • Bats are not carriers of rabies. The chances of coming into contact with a rabid bat are very low. If they get the disease, they usually die from it.

  • Most states do not allow bats to be kept as pets. Responsible bat organizations, such as the Organization for Bat Conservation, strongly discourage taking wild bats as pets.

    The Wolf

    The year was 1591. In the countryside around the German town of Cologne, villagers found the grisly remains of half-eaten human limbs and farm animals. They set out after what they believed to be the culprit – the wolf.

    The villagers eventually cornered the wolf. As they attacked the animal with spears and sharp sticks, the wolf stood on his hind legs and his shape melted into that of a middle-aged man – someone they all knew from town. This is the tale vividly described in a pamphlet from the period. The legend of the werewolf was born.

    Wolves have inspired fear and awe for their predatory nature. Their howls at the moon chill the blood, as if they are calling to all the demons in the darkness. Although admired for hunting, they have been regarded as evil instruments of the devil. Perhaps this is because wolves competed with early man for food, or perhaps because they have attacked our livestock with such cunning efficiency.

    Wolves, in fact, usually try to avoid humans and are naturally timid. But as their natural habitat disappears, they have come into conflict with people, often around farms. With a vanishing food source, wolves have attacked farm animals, prompting angry people to go after the wolf. The North American wolf population, as a consequence, is almost extinct.

    Wolf and Werewolf Facts

  • "Werewolves" in history may actually have been people suffering from rabies or psychosis. Also, people may have eaten hallucinogenic plants that made them see werewolves or even believe they had turned into a wolf. In fact, a common grain used in breads during the Middle Ages was later discovered to be hallucinogenic.

  • The wolf howls not to demons, but for more prosaic reasons: calling to reveal his location, calling the pack together or defining the group's territory.

  • Wolves are not pets, but they have been bred with dogs to produce wolf-dog hybrids as pets. Many organizations discourage the practice.

    Spiders

    Any self-respecting haunted house will be festooned with cobwebs, populated by spiders lying in wait for some hapless prey. It wouldn't hurt the house's reputation if a few hairy tarantulas scurried hither and yon on the floor. It's almost as if zoning laws required that all haunted houses contain spiders and their webs.

    Why the link? Well, think of the spider in detail – eight legs, eight eyes and a face only its mother could love. The spider's method of dining sends shivers up the spine. From the victim's point of view, you're trapped, mired helplessly in a sticky web, while this large, multi-legged, many-eyed creature crawls slowly toward you. Spiders are in fact one of the most feared creatures on earth for these reasons. Arachnophobia is alive and well in many people.

    The tarantula is the most frightening of spiders. It's large enough to eat a small bird or rodent, and is very hairy. But though frightening, they are also becoming very popular as pets because they can be tamed to a degree.

    Spider Facts

  • Spiders are not always the lurking evil represented by Halloween. In England, seeing a spider in your house meant good luck. To kill it would bring bad luck.

  • If a spider loses a leg, it will often grow another one.

  • As predators, they consume vast numbers of insects and other arthropods, many of which are pests of crops, forests, urban structures, and man himself. There is ample data to show that spider communities can be effective in regulating pest populations

  • There are more than 35,000 species of spiders in the world.

    Snakes

    Like spiders, snakes have the dubious distinction of being one of the more universally feared animals. Slithering stealthily on the ground, the snake represents an agent of evil to many people. It was, after all, a serpent that got Adam and Eve thrown out of Eden. For his art of persuasion, the serpent was sentenced to slither on the ground, despised by all of earth's creatures.

    A far more practical reason why people fear snakes is that a few are dangerous to us. Venomous snakes sink their teeth into skin, injecting venom. Others suffocate their prey and swallow them whole.

    Snakes have been worshiped and reviled, but in the pet world they are a source of endless fascination. Others may admire the 2,700 species in the world – so long as they don't have to pet them.

    Snake Facts

  • Snakes are the most recently evolved group of reptiles, arising from lizard-like ancestors during the Mesozoic Era, or "Age of Reptiles," 120 million years ago.

  • Snakes have wide belly scales that enable them to grip the ground as they move. A series of ball and socket joints connect their vertebrae, enabling flexibility and movement.

  • Although there are about 45,000 snake bites each year in the United States, only 7,000 involve venomous snakes. Of those, only 10 people on average die as a result. That's just one-fourth the number of deaths from bee stings.

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