Have you hugged your bat today?

I love bats, and if I could marry one I would. So you can imagine how excited I was on a recent visit to the Science Museum’s bat exhibit. The best part was seeing the four live bats on display. They were so cute I wanted to take them home with me.
This fascination started a couple of years ago after I moved back to Minneapolis and was staying at my mom’s house for a few weeks. One night I came home and discovered a bat clinging to the inside of a window screen. Somehow, you’re never too old to yell, “Mom! Help!”
We were able to trap the little guy in between the screen and the glass, but then we were stumped. Open the window and the bat would fly into the house, and perhaps latch onto a neck and do a Dracula routine. Leave him there and we’d be forced to listen to his screams all night as he repeatedly slammed his tiny body against the glass.
So at about 3 o’clock in the morning, after about an hour of sitting there looking at this scared creature, my mom decided to cut the screen from the outside. This would have been easier had the bat not been stuck in a second-story window.
So she pulls on a pair of sweat pants under her long white nightie (you know the kind moms wear with the high, frilly neckline), a pair of huge yellow rubber gloves, a big pink hat and a down vest. Then she grabs a little saw, a flashlight and a ladder (with the song, “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” by Helen Reddy running through her head the whole time, no doubt). She climbed up to the window and cut a hole in the screen, creating an escape route for our friend. I took pictures of the whole thing; it was a bonding experience.
Creepy as the bat was, after I stared at his scared face for a while, I discovered he was kind of cute. He looked like a miniature version of Smokey the Bear.
But I quickly forgot my passing affection for bats a few weeks later when I moved into a new place. Four bats visited my apartment in the course of a couple weeks.
I discovered the first one in the middle of the night when I was awoken by a squeaking noise. I looked up and saw my ceiling fan going around and around; then I noticed something else going around and around. Eventually the bat flew out into the main hallway of the building.
A few minutes later, being too freaked out to sleep, I was in my kitchen unpacking boxes. As I turned around to put some silverware in a drawer, I found myself eyeball to eyeball with another bat that was hovering about two inches from my nose.
Time stood still while we stared at each other, both freaking out. Finally I broke out my trance, ran out of the apartment in my pj’s, jumped into the car and drove away.
After those two bats were removed (and set free), I came back to the apartment. A few nights later I was again awoken by a bat flying around my bedroom. This one swooped so close to me I could feel it touch the sheet that I had pulled over my head. The thought of it still sends shivers down my spine.
I stayed away from the apartment for a week. In the meantime, the maintenance people got the bats out of the building and plugged up a bunch of tiny cracks in my apartment walls. Then the coast was supposedly clear. I packed up all my clothes and returned home. I opened the door and boom — a bat flew right at me.
After the terrifying ordeal of having all these things in my apartment, Boyfriend told me bats really aren’t that creepy and are, in fact, pretty cool animals. Yeah, right. They get caught in your hair, carry rabies and suck blood. How adorable.
But as it turns out, he was right and I was wrong. (Gol, I don’t think I’ve uttered that phrase before or since.) When I contacted Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas, I found out all sorts of cool facts about these furry mammals. For instance:
ù One little brown bat can eat 1,200 insects in an hour.
ù Bat guano (aka poop) supports entire ecosystems of organisms, including bacteria that’s used in detergents, in producing antibiotics and in detoxifying wastes.
ù Plants such as bananas, mangos and figs in the wild rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal. Bats, which eat seeds then excrete them later, are also big players in rainforest restoration.
ù Vampire bats adopt orphans and share food with hungry roost mates.
ù Bats aren’t blind, almost never get caught in people’s hair, and seldom carry rabies. Rabid bats also avoid people and won’t hurt anyone if they’re left alone.
Then we rented a video on bats called “Predators of the Wild.” The picture on the front of the box shows a freaky-looking bat bearing its fangs, but the entire video just extolls the virtues of bats. It sold me.
The craziest scene is one in which Australian women are feeding and brushing injured and orphaned flying foxes. (Farmers mistakenly blame the bats for crop failure and shoot and dynamite them.) Now, if I was going to get near a bat on purpose you can bet I’d get on as much protective gear as possible — a pair of gloves at the very least.
But these women were wearing T-shirts, no gloves, and didn’t seem to mind when the bats crawled all over them hoping for a bit of food. “Max, mommy said no. One at a time please,” said one woman as she pulled a bat off her arm in order to feed another. Far out.
Two of the bats on display at the Science Museum are similar to the Australian bats. They’re African fruit bats, provided by the Como Zoo, and resemble little Chihuahuas with wings. They give visitors coy glances with their big brown eyes as they hang upside down munching on bananas. (The exhibit runs through May 4, and if you go make sure it’s on a Saturday between noon and 4 p.m. because that’s the only time the live bats are around.)
The other bats on display are the kind we’re most familiar with — big brown bats. They’re not as exotic as the fruit bats, but it was cool to see a woman hold one in her hand and feed it live meal worms — definitely a lot better than seeing one swoop around my apartment.
Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
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