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November, 2006

Bat Tales

by Larry

I believe I got off on the wrong foot with bats when they were striking features not only of my earliest Halloween experiences but also in the then new and scary Walt Disney movie, "Sleeping Beauty." That film gave both bats and stepmothers short shrift, so that they seemed equally deserving of a wide berth. You say there were no bats in "Sleeping Beauty"? Perhaps, but the evil stepmother appeared to have wings like a bat, so for a young child, taken to see the flic before there were PG ratings, the merged images must have later split, and I "remember" her in the company of formidably large, sinister bats.

There were in fact a whole host of movies in my wee youth that furthered an early near phobia for Chiroptera, including especially "Cinderella" and "The Wizard of Oz," for whether they really showed bats or not these cinematic experiences held a bat scenes like eeriness that persisted more indelibly than the actual footage.

Our language encourages such childhood fears with a multitude of prejudicial words or phrases, for instance: "[he ran] like a bat out of hell, "[she had] bats in the belfry," "[he was] batty," "[she was] blind as a bat," "[he had] bat dentition," "the bat moved (a bizarre excuse occasionally used in baseball)," and the ever popular defamation: "[she was] boring as bat s[bleep]t."

In fact, bats are seldom deserving of such abuses. I suspect the fact that many bats have made their homes in caves, perhaps frightening places at first for early humans, has something to do with our culture's still associating them with unpleasantness. Their odd appearance, whether in flight, when hanging upside down, or when crawling, may also have led superstitious folks to think of them as little devil creatures.

When I was growing up, other slurs upon their order were common: that they are vampires, sucking people's blood while they sleep; that they like to nest in our hair or easily get tangled in it; and that they are usually rabid and will try to bite us when they have this disease.

None of these aspersions have much foundation either. Yes, there are tropical bat species that mainly drink the blood of large mammals, such as cattle, for a living. But there are none of this type in the US, and, even in hotter, wetter climes, they do not much bother with human corpuscles. Nor do they turn into light-hating monsters, except perhaps in Hollywood, Bollywood, or similar centers of movie making success around the world.

Mammalian flying fauna are not particularly prone to entanglement in people's tresses or to favor human hair as nesting material. If they come in contact with our locks, it is inadvertent. And when able they will promptly fly away rather than digging in. They do not gather our hair to line bat nests.

Bats do at times carry rabies, but less so than many other mammals, such as skunks. There is even some indication that bats can recover from the disease. And they very seldom bite when rabid. More often it leaves them too exhausted to fly. Other difficulties, dehydration for instance, can cause them to be flightless as well. While they may bite if disturbed when encountered on the ground, one can simply leave them alone and so avoid being bitten. If found where they might be harassed by or threatening to children or pets, weakened bats may be removed using heavy gloves.

Bats will generally leave us alone if we leave them alone. But we are a far worse hazard to them than vice versa. They must be doing something right, though, for, next to rodents, they are the biggest order of mammals by species, with over 900 different kinds. They exist in all major regions of the world but the coldest or on some isolated islands. There are many insect eating varieties and some that eat exclusively fruit. The former, such as the Mexican free-tail variety found in central TX, do us tremendous good by consuming vast quantities of mosquitoes (that really do suck our blood and spread disease). The latter are helpful as well, assisting in the natural pollination of plants whose fruit humans also like to eat. So, bats may not make the best pets, but they are generally quite nice to have in one's community.

Speaking of bat poop, there have been major uses our species has made of guano, often gathered from caves in large quantities, including as an excellent organic fertilizer and for gunpowder.

As for me, in place of the nervousness of my youth, more information and acquaintance with the creatures have led to genuine respect and fondness for them.

When I went to college, at the University of Texas in Austin, my first rooming house, damaged in a hurricane soon after my arrival and never completely repaired before it was torn down to make way for extra parking, there were bats that established themselves in our attic. From time to time one or two would come down into the rest of the building with us, swooping about over our heads until they might be encouraged out an opened window. Of course, it was a little spooky not knowing when, perhaps while we slept, they might fly among us again, but there was a compensation: coeds of that day, easily impressed, often found stories of bats flying about in our rooms cool, amusing, or exciting.

Bats were a remarkable feature of my experience with movie houses as well. The old State and Paramount theaters, on Congress Avenue in Austin, and a similarly ancient edifice in downtown Columbia, SC, where I got my master's, before they were expensively renovated reeked of bat guano accumulated in a variety of balconies and other high places in these cave-like structures.

Prior to the days of widely available air-conditioning, or, in other words, through most of my undergraduate career that began in the early 1960s, it was often not possible for me to sleep for long in my stifling rooms over the hotter months. Besides escaping to the cool movie auditoriums, worth their cheap admission even without the entertainment, or stopping in at one of the pleasantly frigid all-night chapels where one could stretch out on the cool pews for forty winks, I would sometimes walk all over our large campus to wear myself out enough for further slumber once returned to my digs. UT was well lit in most places and had plenty of green spaces. When tired from my hikes but not quite ready yet to head for bed in the muggy abode, I would lie out on the grass under one of the tall light towers, contemplating the clouds of insects circling bright bulbs aloft and the bats flashing among them like so many sharks dashing in to decimate their prey.

I joined the UT Spelunkers and went on a few caving outings with them. Caves, if large enough, are naturally air-conditioned, hence one of their attractions for someone nearly allergic to the heat of a central TX summer. Predictably, they also provided interesting encounters with bats.

Later, I would go on cave explorations as a member of the Sierra Club too. Indeed, one of the places visited in this way, Airman's Cave, near a bank of Barton Creek and upstream from Barton Springs pool, was where I took Valerie when we were just starting to date. This time there was no group, so only the two of us were, one at a time, entering the long, claustrophobic, birth canal like tube through limestone that forms the cave's only entrance and exit. Once inside, there are extended stretches where, but for our tiny flashlights, total darkness reigns, the atmosphere is close and stinky, the place is extremely dirty or muddy, and one has only about 10-12 inches of clearance. The cave goes on and on, with several side routes, but we went in only about a half-mile or so, ate our lunches amid smelly, wet deposits of clay, and then trekked, crawled, or scooted back supine, emerging in late afternoon, filthy and fatigued. After such first impressions, how could Val resist my charms?

For years my work required use of a tall downtown parking garage, and I would often see bats at home in that structure.

I have watched the 1.5 million bats leave the Congress Street Bridge in Austin for their nightly foraging. The exodus of this largest urban colony of Mexican free-tail bats in the world can be an intriguing sight. Val and I have also witnessed this species departing in ever ascending spirals from Carlsbad Caverns, in NM. We have enjoyed seeing bats too in such diverse locales as a botanical garden in FL, in the (TX) Longhorn Cavern, or in a WI cave.

Bats preceded Homo sapiens by quite a long period of Earth's pre-history. Though a number of other mammals are faced with extinction before many more generations, likely as not these flying cousins will be around long after such distressed species, and perhaps we, may have ceased to be. They are a colorful, vital, and quite interesting addition to the easily observed natural world.

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