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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.