LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -- At first glance, it looks like a normal house on a nice street.
But taped on the door is a sign from the Gwinnett County Health Department, labeling the home an imminent health hazard.
It's because the house is full of bats, dozens of them, that likely won't be leaving anytime soon.
For six months, the house on Hidden Valley Drive was Joel Johnson's home. He rented the property, living there with his fiancee and two young boys until one day, several days before Thanksgiving, he noticed a bat flying in the upstairs hallway. He immediately tried to capture it and send it outside.
"When I went into the room where I thought it went, I noticed that there were more bats than one," Johnson told 11Alive's Blayne Alexander.
Gwinnett County Animal Control came and removed the bats, but Johnson knew the ordeal was not over; he still heard the scratching noises.
"I could hear them in the garage, in the bedroom above where we slept," he remembered.
"Further looking outside, they were coming in the chimney, they were coming both ends of the house. They were even coming under the house."
It was so bad that when Johnson called animal control again in late December, animal control called the health department, whose workers took videos and pictures of the bats. The home was declared a health hazard, unfit for occupation or entry until the bats are out of the living area.
Joseph Sternberg, Environmental Health Director with the Gwinnett County Health Department, was at the house that night. He told 11Alive's Alexander they found a "large infestation" of bats inside the house, bringing a "significant potential" for exposure to rabies.
The department recommended the family undergo rabies shots as a precaution, which they have done.
11Alive News found the man who owns the house; Martin Del Mazo, a Fulton County attorney, insists his hands are tied.
"The problem is the bats won't leave," he said. "We're not allowed to physically pick up the bats and move them out of the house."
Because many bats are listed as endangered species, it is illegal to use pesticides against them. Del Mazo said he hired a company back in November to install so-called check valves, bags that would let bats out, but not back in. But because it is wintertime, the bats are in hibernation and not expected to leave on their own until at least March.
"The house is empty and will stay that way until such a time as the bats decide to leave," Del Mazo said. "And that's frustrating."
The family now lives in a nearby hotel. Johnson said many of their belongings are still inside the house. He goes back during the daytime, accompanied by a health department worker, to retrieve what he can, but he says some items, like his dryer full of bats, will have to stay behind permanently.
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