World’s only flying mammals finally get some attention.
DOTTIE Hyatt has 36 bats living in her Keller, Texas, home, but she’s not calling an exterminator. Hyatt is the onewoman bat rescue team of Bat World Lone Star, one of 20 satellite rescue centres around the United States associated with the Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, Texas.
When an injured bat is discovered in North Texas, Hyatt’s home is often where it ends up. There, it is rehydrated; medicated; nurtured; given a name such as Alfie, Wilbur, Jolene or Cal; and hopefully, returned to the great outdoors. If the bat can’t live on its own, it becomes a permanent resident of Bat World Sanctuary.
A former Floridian and IT project manager, Hyatt has been active in wildlife rescue most of her life, helping rehabilitate everything from bunnies to manatees. About 12 years ago at a workshop conducted by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, she heard a lecture on bats. “I learned that bats are clean, intelligent, affectionate and endangered,” said Hyatt. “My response was ‘ What?’ I was raised with all the same misconceptions as everyone else.”
A few months later, her cat delivered an injured bat to her house, and that was the start of an intense commitment to the nocturnal fliers.
Bats are the subject of much misinformation. Thanks to Hollywood, bats have been the villains of scary movies, swooping in to attack victims or get tangled in their hair. Some people think bats are a type of rodent or bird. Others believe they are blind and carry a host of diseases, including the deadly rabies virus. All of these perceptions are false.
“Less than one-half of 1% of bats contract rabies,” said Hyatt. “They’re mammals just like us, and all mammals can contract rabies.”
In truth, bats are key players in a healthy environment, she said. They pollinate many plants, including mangoes, bananas and guavas. If you love margaritas, you should love bats because they pollinate 98% of all agave plants, the source of tequila. Their immense appetite for flying bugs helps control crop destroyers, such as the corn-borer moth, which defies its name by noshing on everything from corn and eggplants to apples and potatoes. Another bat delicacy is the mosquito, which can carry West Nile virus.
“The average bat gobbles 3,000 to 5,000 insects every night,” said Hyatt. “A lactating female eats 10,000 to 12,000 nightly. Bats save us billions, not millions, of dollars in crops each year.”
Despite the negative publicity they’ve received, bats are cute, Hyatt added. They purr when they’re happy and have almost no odour. They communicate when they are hungry or want attention, using squeaks and clicks in various tones to express their needs and opinions. “Next to man, bats have the most complicated language there is,” she said.
Bats see well in the dark and have a unique echo-locating system that allows them to emit high-frequency sound waves and then measure the echo that bounces back. This skill gives them a detailed mental picture of objects in their path and serves them well on dark nights.
There are 34 bat species in Texas, but the most common in this area are the evening bat, red bat, hoary bat, pippistrelle and the Mexican free-tail, which is the official state bat of Texas and the type that lives under the famous Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin.
Four years ago in a cave west of Albany, New York, an explorer photographed hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their faces. He also noticed several dead bats in the area. Within a year, the New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation became aware of hundreds of dead bats, and in 2007, biologists announced that white-nose syndrome, a deadly European disease, had crossed the Atlantic. So far, millions of bats in the Northeast have died, and white-nose syndrome has been reported as far west as Oklahoma.
State and federal biologists are baffled. They know the highly contagious disease causes a fungus that eats away at the bat’s wing tissue, preventing it from flying and causing it to die of starvation.
But they don’t know how to stop it.
Because the disease can be carried on an explorer’s clothing from one cave to the next, the US Forest Service has issued an emergency order closing caves and abandoned mines in national forests and grasslands in several states. However, owners of privately owned, pay-to-visit caves are not required to follow suit and few are doing so voluntarily, Hyatt said.
This is a serious problem because “bats are the most endangered land mammal in North America,” said Hyatt. “They’re also the slowest reproducing mammal on the face of the Earth for their size.” Most female bats have only one pup a year (a few of the world’s 1,100 bat species have multiple births), with gestation ranging from 90 days to nine months.
“A baby bat is one-third the size of its mom at birth,” she said. “It is full grown in eight weeks but still nursing, so the mom must forage for food to feed herself and her baby. A lot of first-time moms don’t make it. They die trying to keep their baby fed.”
Even if the bat mother survives, her pup has a 50% chance of growing into an adult, thanks to pesticides and predators, including humans and birds, such as blue jays, hawks, crows and grackles. In fact, bird injuries and pesticide poisoning are the two major reasons that bats end up in rehabilitation.
During the annual bat birthing season from spring until early fall, Bat World Lone Star receives scores of calls about distressed baby bats that have lost their mothers. Hyatt rehabilitates 70 to 100 orphans every summer. While adult bats in rehab eat twice a day, babies must be fed every four hours with a syringe featuring a special feeding tip. “An orphaned pup with no injuries is a three-to -four-month commitment,” Hyatt said.
Because bat rescuers can’t capture 5,000 inspects for each bat every day, “we buy meal worms that have been fed on fruit and sprinkled with a special vitamin mixture,” she said.
Bats have a metabolism that any dieter would envy. The bat’s heart beats 900 to 1,300 times per minute when they are not hibernating, which means they process a meal in about 20 minutes and can be debilitated by disease in a few hours. When someone finds a sick bat, they need to consider the situation an emergency.
“We have to get them sooner,” she said, speaking for all Bat World satellite centres. “If someone turns a bat in to us two or three days after finding it, that bat is not going to survive.”
Of the United States’ 5,000 certified wildlife rehabilitators, only 200 are bat specialists. Hyatt underwrites all expenses for her own satellite centre and passes on donations that she receives to Bat World Sanctuary, which is actually two facilities in one. The first is a 111year-old sandstone building in downtown Mineral Wells that bats adopted years ago and which Amanda Lollar, Bat World Sanctuary founder, purchased in order to protect them. Today, thousands of bats come and go freely from the building each evening. The second is a rehabilitation facility for bats on the mend and those that can no longer survive on their own.
To raise funds, Hyatt often lectures at schools and club meetings for a fee. Wearing dangling bat earrings, she launches into an enthusiastic presentation that includes live appearances by Jolene, Cal or Wilber. Frequently, these lectures reinforce Hyatt’s commitment to her work.
“Every now and then a child will come up to me after a presentation and say ‘Bat Lady, when I grow up I want to be like you’,” she said. “If I can make a difference in a child’s life, they will grow up and help preserve the species and respect bats instead of fear them. They’ll go on and continue the work.”– Fort Worth Star-Telegram/McClatchyTribune Information Services
Bat-lover: Dottie Hyatt holds a Pallid bat. She is the one-woman bat rescue team of Bat World Lone Star, one of 20 satellite bat rescue centres across the United States.
A Pallid bat. Bats are crucial for a healthy environment. They pollinate many plants, including the mango, banana, guava and the much-loved durian.