Friday, November 13, 2015

Bat Time: review of THE SECRET LIVES OF BATS, by Merlin Tuttle

The Secret Lives of Bats
Merlin Tuttle
$26.00, hardcover; our price $20.80
Click Here to Purchase

As Rogers & Hammerstein wrote in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught/to hate and fear….” Apparently, too many humans have been taught to hate and fear bats. The result of ignorance is often irrational hatred; the result of hatred is violence. Bats have suffered human violence for centuries, in spite of their vastly beneficial role in nature as insect eaters and fruit and flower pollinators.
 Starting in the 1970s, there was a definite movement towards not only tolerating but protecting these much maligned creatures. That movement is largely the result of the work of Dr. Merlin Tuttle. His passionate research led to the founding of Bat Conservation International that has succeeded in protecting and reinvigorating threatened bat populations worldwide.
His passion for bats began as a teenager in Tennessee when he discovered the behavior of gray myotis bats was decidedly different from what he’d read in books. The fact that he, at age seventeen, had possibly made a significant observation compelled him to further his scientific studies. In so doing, he also became a skilled photographer who would not let danger or any discomfort dissuade him from the perfect shot.
In working with National Geographic Dr. Tuttle’s expeditions have taken him all over the world, and subjected him to almost inhuman amounts of physical and emotional hardship, all of which he recalls with extraordinary good humor. He seems to possess not only Herculean strength and resilience, but a diplomatic personality that never condemns or judges those who have perpetrated harm on bats. Upon visiting Bracken Cave in Texas to witness firsthand the world’s largest bat colony, Tuttle is nearly overcome by the heat and carbon dioxide, even with his respirator. Beetles crawl up his legs, biting him, and he feels the first indications of losing consciousness. Fainting would be deadly, so reluctantly he retreats.
Upon leaving the cave, he encounters three men sitting in the shade, talking:
They were speculating on how much fun it would be to sometime throw a stick of dynamite into the cave and see how many bats would come out all at once. Of course, the answer was none. They’d all be dead. These men weren’t maliciously inclined. They were simply ignorant and were quite apologetic when I explained the consequences of such an act….
The appalling spectacle of how easily the world’s largest remaining bat colony could be destroyed by simple ignorance provided a strong reminder of just how important public education could be.
Bats are fragile creatures, easily taken down in the hundreds, thousands, millions, by human intervention. Many species are already extinct because of human action and loss of habitat. Now the notorious white-nose syndrome is killing many colonies in this country. Thanks to Dr. Tuttle and others who have fought for their protection, there are some species who are making a comeback, but there is still a long way to go.
Whatever your feelings about bats, this is a highly entertaining and mind-altering plunge into their world. The color photographs are particularly awe-inspiring. Bats can be cute! They can also have faces only a mother bat would love. But they will never be evil, blood-sucking, hair-entangling creatures we’ve somehow cursed them to be. Next time you see a bat, thank him for the insects he’s eating or the fruits and flowers he’s pollinating. And leave him alone.

Friday, November 6, 2015


Wendy Williams
$26; our price: $20.80, hardcover, with photos

Long before they were useful to us for work, war, or entertainment, horses have fascinated humankind. The famous Vogelherd horse was sculpted by admiring hands thirty-five thousand years ago. Horses seem to fill a niche in our lives. But when did this bond first form, and why? Those are the central questions journalist Wendy Williams strives to answer in her outstanding and ground-breaking book The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companions. She writes:
“We must have horses and dogs and cats and other animals in our lives in order for our psyches to function as they should, just as we have to have bacteria in our guts in order to digest food.”
Other domesticated animals have changed biologically because of the process of being domesticated. Horses, for the most part, have not. The horse has evolved according to the world he inhabits, adapting as the climate changed, grasses proliferated, water ebbed and flowed. The horse we know now in North America originated 56 million years ago as the dawn horse, gradually losing his toes, developing a concave back and flat teeth. In fact, the evolution of the horse’s teeth determined his very survival, and the evolution of grass determined his teeth. Beginning as a browser, he developed into a grazer. Beginning as a scampering little creature, he became a galloping athlete. His intelligence, along with his physical prowess, also grew.
Because of horses’ unique intelligence (dawn horses had advanced brains, according to paleontologists), as well as social and emotional commonalities with humans, behaviorists are able to conduct tests to determine horse perception. It’s been revealed that horses can interpret two-dimensional images, much as humans can. And although they are far-sighted and partially color blind, they recognize different human faces, even being able to tell twins apart, and, more important perhaps, perceive emotions. When we gaze at a horse’s eye, we also read his feelings. Could the Pleistocene cave artists have felt that connection as well? And perhaps in finding this bond, did a mutual trust develop even in prehistoric times? (Humans have famously abused the trust of our animal companions on too many occasions, but horses seem to have unending faith in us anyway, which just proves that they must know something we don’t.)
In searching for a deeper understanding of horses, Williams explores some of the mysteries in their evolution, including one fascinating riddle: the disappearance of the horse in the Western hemisphere, and specifically North America, around 14,000 years ago. The reasons for this vanishing are debated vehemently by scientists, and no consensus has been reached. (The fact that horses were no longer here when Europeans arrived has been used as the rationale for the government’s removing the wild mustangs in the West as a non-native species.) Darwin himself had struggled to find an answer to this phenomenon. Why, after millennia of adapting to the changing conditions, would the horse population dwindle and die out in this region? Was it the result of human activity?
Williams’ investigation of this disappearance takes her all over the world, tracking the horse’s progress and decline, along with the planet’s shifts, and coinciding human development. One particularly illuminating incident occurred in 2013 in Britain’s New Forest National Park where dozens of free-roaming New Forest ponies perished as a result of the boomer crop of acorns. Horses love acorns to death. Literally. Oak trees proliferated relatively recently, after the ice receded, so equine tolerance has not had a chance to evolve, and probably will not. Perhaps that offers one clue to the North American extinction. The controversy, however, continues to rage in the scientific community, and may never be fully resolved.
What we do know is that the horse’s extraordinary evolution occurred not to benefit mankind, or as a result of our intervention, but in spite of it. We are fortunate to have found common ground that enables a mutually beneficial relationship, and that the horse is forgiving of our many trespasses. There is still much to learn as we humans evolve into wiser, more compassionate companions.
The Horse begins and ends with the author observing wild mustangs in Wyoming. Her quest for understanding the true nature of the horse, and the origins of the bond between horse and human, provides us with a joyous ride through equine history. Williams gives us a cohesive, comprehensive, yet comprehensible study of this magnificent animal. Her Epilogue is truly an “ahhh!” moment of personal evolution.
Click Here to Buy Book