From Metromode: Bewitched by Bats

Welcome to
the jungle — otherwise known as the Bat Zone. Perched atop a glacial
boulder path at the edge of a 300-acre woodland, near the Cranbrook
Institute of Science and a neighboring wigwam, the Organization for Bat Conservation
(OBC) shelters the state’s only
open
for public viewing
bat collection.
And with the exception of zoos, it’s also the only such exhibit in the
country.

Inside the Bat Zone it’s surprisingly humid, the
dimly lit space warmed by red heat lamps.
It’s the perfect
climate for the bats (mainly tropical), a troop of flying squirrels, and
a slinking two-toed sloth. Anita, our guide, walks through a long,
vine-laced cage, quickly dispelling the commonly-held view that bats
would like nothing more than to get tangled in your hair. As she passes
there’s a slight stirring, but mostly they just hang quietly or tread
the monkey bars.

To backtrack: “No!” was my daughter’s initial
response to the suggestion that we attend the bat program. Chiroptera (which means “hand-wing”),
the second-largest order of mammals, is dogged by an age-old mythology
that both attracts and repels. But leave Transylvania and Count
Dracula-like blood tippling behind, and you’ll see this elusive group of
mammals is unfairly maligned. I’d only seen them a couple times in the
wild, one aloft in the sky and another lost soul battering through my
house on a hot summer night. This was a rare chance to see them up
close, but my daughter wasn’t
buying it. Only the promise of cookie dough ice cream scoops and
hand-holding could entice her.

Now, we’re enthralled. “He’s so
cute!” she coos as Anita brings each one out. With perky ears and
dog-like or fox-like faces, they are pretty darling. A Big Brown
bat, a species commonly found in Michigan, clings to Anita’s
fingers and spoons in the curve of her palm, gazing at us from upside
down.
It’s got big eyes, big ears,
tiny jittering teeth, and gossamer wings with vein tracery. A dog-faced
bat has the visage of a Chihuahua. Each one is more intriguing than the
last — the yellow-necked Rodrigues Flying Fox, the Malaysian Flying Fox
with its five-foot wingspan.


It’s all very calm,
benign, and fascinating as heck. They like lunchtime. Fruit kebabs
dangle in the heavy air, pungent with overripe bananas. One fist-sized
fur ball maws on a piece of cantaloupe as large as his face. Others
vacuum insects with gusto. Our Big Brown buddy gobbles a mealworm like
it’s the Last Supper.

On leather wings

“I’m a field
ecologist, and the first thing that I found really interesting about
bats is that they’re found almost everywhere in the world,” says Rob Mies, co-director of the OBC and
co-author of Stokes Beginners’ Guide
to Bats
.
“A lot of times we
don’t know the answers, so that’s what keeps me interested in bats,
because we don’t know a lot about them.”

With over 1,100 species
in existence today, the full extent of creature comfort is a work in
progress.

The OBC started during his graduate student days at EMU
in the early ’90s, where he did research. Along with Kim
Williams
, Mies co-founded the organization as a non-profit
dedicated to educational programming. For the last 18 years they have
visited hundreds of schools, libraries, and nature centers nationwide
each year.  When they were looking for a facility to be open to the
public, the opportunity to partner with the Cranbrook Institute of Science
presented itself.

While the OBC is independent of Cranbrook, the
relationship is mutually beneficial, Mies says. Cranbrook’s natural history museum lacks live
animals; in turn, the OBC benefits from the institute’s support via
program scheduling and the provision of an on-campus facility, which
became the Bat Zone eight years ago.
The 150 animals in
residence are all rescued and not viable in the wild. They typically
come from zoos, were injured or orphaned, or were illegal pets. Most are
tropical because that’s what zoos tend to keep, but some are native to
Michigan.

“That’s kind of
the big reason that the organization exists, is to take in these rescued
injured and orphaned animals and then also use them for educational
purposes to teach people about their importance,” Mies says. The OBC has
five full-time staff, four part-timers, and 26 active volunteers.

“…Because
they were injured or orphaned, we needed to handle them more often and
with long-term handling, they get used to their handler, and so we
developed relationships with the animals.” He’s bonded with about a
dozen bats. “They seem to enjoy being brought out, going out and seeing
new things, and we see it as enrichment in their lives. But also it
really helps to change people’s attitudes towards bats.”

The $4
admission ticket goes towards the program’s $600,000 annual budget.
Nearly 85% of the organization’s revenue comes from programming and
sales of bat houses and other bat-themed paraphernalia. It also gets a boost from free
online search ads provided through a grant from Google Nonprofit, Mies
says.
But bat maintenance is hardly
inexpensive. Proper heat and humidity are required, food needs to be
provided, and, of course, the cages need constant cleaning.
This is why, he surmises, the OBC is the only
one of its kind in the nation.

Threatened

While
the OBC doesn’t do much research its focus is on care and education it does
help fund efforts investigating White Nose
Syndrome
, a fungus that infects bats hibernating in mines or caves.


“What we
think is going on is that the fungus is waking them up while they’re
hibernating during the winter and then they’re using up their body fat,
so they end up starving to death by February or March.” Thus far, the
disease has killed well over one million bats, with the potential to
kill tens of millions more in North America over the next decade, he
says. Reproduction doesn’t stem the decline because bats usually bear
just one baby a year.

“Right now wildlife ecologists are saying
that this could be the biggest wildlife devastation in a century. Not
all bat species will be affected by it, but a large portion will be.”
This affliction has yet to reach Michigan, but may over the next year or
two, he adds.

Unlike regions of the country that draw tens of
thousands or even millions of cave-dwelling bats (the summer evening bat
flight
is a big draw at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New
Mexico), Michigan doesn’t attract large colonies. But there are nine
species here, and the Big Brown bat, with a wing span of 12-14 inches,
is most common. Red bats and Hoary bats can also be found locally. These
varieties feed on insects and emerge at dusk, about 15 minutes after
sunset. The best places to spot them are where insects congregate — near
bodies of water or lights. Most
live in crevices or underneath the peeling bark of dead trees. To keep
bats on your property and out of the attic or barn, if there are no dead
trees, bat
houses
are the next best option, Mies says.


There’s
something about them…

Why, I ask, do
bats have such a bad rep?

“I think they creep people out because
they’re the only mammals in the world that can fly,” Mies points out.
“They’re a mammal with wings. They’re a mammal that hangs upside down.
And they’re a mammal that comes out at night… Anything that comes out at
night is pretty scary to most humans. And that’s something that is deep
in our genetics.”

Bats don’t hang inverted for the fear factor —
anatomy dictates it, he explains. Their hips are about a third of the
size of what would be required to hold their larger upper bodies in an
upright stance.

They’ve even hung from the palms of a few celebs.
Chances are over the last several years, you’ve seen Mies or Williams
on stage, bats in tow, on your favorite talk
shows
: The Tonight Show, Ellen
DeGeneres, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Martha Stewart Living, Live
with Regis and Kelly
, and the Today
Show
.  It’s not a lucky coincidence. The OBC has actively
cultivated these appearances, starting with the Today Show in 1999.

“We’re so unique because we
do have live animals and we’ve taken the time, actually many years, to
work with individuals so I can take them on a program like this,” Mies
explains. “…I think it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to push
our mission and the goal of educating to a much broader spectrum of
people that we would never encounter.” He most recently appeared on the Tonight Show last October — not
coincidentally, guest slots tend to fall in the weeks before Halloween.

Why the
association with All Hallow’s Eve? Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, for one. “I’ve read
the book and it doesn’t ref
er to
bats that often but it was one of the first books to really [invoke fear
of bats].”

Mies paraphrases: ” ‘he crawled on the side of the
castle in a bat-like manner’… So that really scared people, and then
obviously vampire bats and the fact that they drink blood is something
that really creeps people out.” Not to worry. Vampire bats, a tiny
species, live in Central and South America and feed almost exclusively
off of cows — not humans.

To drive home that point, a young
vampire bat colony will be on display starting in June, when the Bat
Zone will be open seven days a week. Other programming includes the
annual Great Lakes Bat Festival on July 30 and 31, featuring speakers
and researchers presenting on bat ecology, bat houses, public health,
and zoo exhibits. Kid-centric activities like a visit from the author
and illustrator of Stellaluna,
the tale of a fruit bat raised by birds, are also on order. And there’ll
be an evening excursion to the Rouge River tributary to look and listen
for wild bats.

Overall, with a growing human presence and
deforestation, the bat population is in decline — and surrounded by
needless suspicion.

“The biggest misconception about bats is
that basically they’re good for nothing. Why should we care?” Mies
poses. Other misunderstandings abound: people wonder whether bats are
blind (they’re not) or if they carry rabies (No. Like other mammals,
they can get it, but less than .5% are infected.). While the OBC is
happy to dispel those rumors, the message goes way beyond simple
myth-busting.

Bats are voracious consumers of moths and beetles,
including spotted cucumber beetles, tomato hornworm moths, and corn
earworm moths. “These are caterpillars’ larvae that destroy millions of
dollars worth of crops. With less bats, we’ll have to spray more
pesticides.”  They also pollinate bananas and are the sole pollinators
of the agave plant. Hundreds of other plant species rely on bats for
seed dispersal and pollination. Bats
are both environmentally and
economically important to our ecosystem, Mies adds.


“We have to learn to live with them and
actually protect them.”

OBC on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien from Michael Narlock
on Vimeo.




All Photographs © Marvin
Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here

Rob Mies, co-director of the OBC

Red lights help to keep the bat zone at an ideal temperature

Two-toed sloth

Rob Mies

Most bats at the OBC have been injured and are now being cared for

Fruit kabobs hang in the bat cages at the OBC

a curious Camilla