GUEST POST: Dispelling Fear of the Phantom Bat

Dianne Odegard is the Outreach Associate for Bat Conservation International, where she works on issues including education, public help, and bats in buildings. Mexican Free-Tailed Bats are one of the featured species for National Wildlife Week for their extraordinary record breaking abilities.

Free-Tailed Bat, courtesy of Merlin Tuttle
My earliest memory of a bat is probably one of my earliest memories, period. I’m not sure of my age at the time, but my feeling is that I was not much more than a toddler. My family was on vacation in northern MN, staying in a rustic little cabin in the woods, and I woke up to see what looked like a flying ghost swooping around the cabin – phantom wings, backlit probably by the moon through a window, were skeletal, fine bones glowing through thin membranes of skin that almost disappeared in the moonlight. I was scared to death.

Discovering the Beauty of Bats

I draw a complete blank when I try to conjure up the outcome of that event; I suspect it might not have ended well for the bat. The adults present that long ago night had not yet heard the news that bats are good neighbors, and they had a terrified daughter to protect! When fight or flight kicks in, thought checks out.

My experiences during the past several years at Bat Conservation International, talking with people about all kinds of situations involving bats, confirm that fear is still often the primary (if knee-jerk) reaction to bats. It’s impossible to stop fearing a phantom, and I’ve discovered that seeing live bats up close can have a profound and often immediate effect on people – both children and adults.

Bats can look similar to Chihuahuas!
BCI’s two African straw-colored flying fox bats, the “bat ambassadors” that have delighted people for many years at BCI educational programs roost at my home. It’s a great surprise to many people that bats can be so beautiful – in an almost conventional way. Flying fox bats have faces that resemble not only foxes, but white-tailed deer, or even a pet Chihuahua! There is a connection to be made between an animal someone finds beautiful, or even loves, and this bat! Someone occasionally expresses the assumption that these beautiful (and quite large) flying foxes are the bats roosting, to the tune of 1.5 million, under our famous Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas. (Not so. I promise.)

My Favorite, the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat

Mexican Free-Tailed bat, credit: Dianne Odegard
The actual residents under that bridge are my favorite bats – Mexican (or Brazilian) free-tailed bats. The frequent source of surprise for people with these bats is that they are so small – with wings folded and feet (with bristles and hairs used for grooming themselves—much like cats) grasping my gloved hand, they almost always ask, “Is that a baby?” When Mexican free-tails fly, they can look large – they are built for speed with their long narrow wings, and can fly as fast as 60 mph with a tail-wind.

My husband and I are bat rehabilitators, which is extra-curricular from my job doing educational outreach at BCI, though I bring our native bats to programs as often as possible to see that connection happen – this time, it’s a connection to something that is vulnerable and fragile, and increasingly relies on the good will of humans. They see the real, individual animal in place of the myth that was feared. Once that happens, they may care what happens to bats – and that can be the emergence of a conservationist.

National Wildlife Week BadgeLearn more about how you can celebrate EXTRA-ordinary species in your community and across the country during this year’s National Wildlife Week, March 19-25 >>
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Published: March 24, 2012