The best is enemy of the good.
The profoundest truths are paradoxical.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
The Joy of Bats
The Joy of Bats
October 30, 2015
The New Yorker
In September, 1984, a million and a half Brazilian free-tailed bats took up residence under a bridge in Austin, Texas. A bat panic ensued: articles claimed that hundreds of thousands of rabid bats were attacking townspeople, and a local headline read “Bat Colonies Sink Teeth Into City.” People wanted the bats exterminated. “Rather than viewing the great clouds of emerging bats as a wonder of nature,” Merlin Tuttle writes in his new book, “The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures with Nature’s Most Misunderstood Mammals,” locals freaked out, imagining a bat version of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
Tuttle, a bat biologist who was then a museum curator in Milwaukee, had recently founded a nonprofit called Bat Conservation International. Seeing the Austin crisis as an opportunity to educate people, he resigned from the museum and moved Bat Conservation International to Austin. Texans were horrified;Texas Monthly gave him its Bum Steer Award. But the fear didn’t last.
“Fortunately, the truth about bats is extremely powerful,” Tuttle writes. “Free-tailed bats have strange faces, but their big brown eyes, winsome expressions, and gentle nature quickly converted countless skeptics.” Tuttle is a convincing pro-bat evangelist. After he moved to Texas and began to enlighten people, perceptions about bats changed. Texas Monthly quickly came to support his conservation work; later, the mayor of Austin proudly called the city the “bat capital of America” in a bridge-side ceremony attended by seven hundred people; and Governor Ann Richards invited Tuttle and his bats to the governor’s mansion to entertain her and her guests. The Texas Department of Transportation, which once exterminated bats, now incorporates their habitats into some new bridges, sheltering millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats.
The reason for such cultural shifts is that bats are good neighbors, and that Tuttle is their spokesperson and public-relations man. He calls bats “sophisticated, beautiful, even cute, quite aside from their crucial roles as primary predators of insects, pollinators of flowers, and dispensers of seeds.” If your awareness of bats is limited to Halloween, “Batman,” Ozzy Osbourne, “Dracula,” Bat Boy, the “Office,”“Name the Bats,”the Count, or this video of a bat eating a banana, along with vague notions about echolocation, leathery wings, rabies, and white-nose syndrome, “The Secret Lives of Bats” will enlighten you, too.
“The Secret Lives of Bats” teaches readers about the world’s bats through the stories of Tuttle’s experiences with them. It begins with his early explorations in Baloney Cave, near Knoxville, Tennessee, as a teen-ager, in a tone of incredulous fascination which recalls other great nature memoirs, such as E. O. Wilson’s “Naturalist,” or Jane Goodall’s encounters with chimpanzees. Why do some creatures—ants, bats, chimpanzees—strike us in particular? To some extent, it’s the ways in which they share our characteristics paired with the ways in which they don’t, creating a mixture of empathy, mystery, and wonder. Bats are cuddly and affectionate mammals with sophisticated brains, but they also fly, hang upside down, and live in caves. We rarely see them, and when we do it’s often startling.
Tuttle was first intrigued by a group of gray bats that he encountered in Baloney Cave (“named for its baloney-shaped formations.”). Tuttle’s enthusiasm is joyous to behold; his observations and writing delight, even when he’s describing guano. “Once bat droppings dried, they easily crumbled into dozens of tiny fragments that reflected our lamps’ light in a rainbow of colors,” he writes, of one of his initial cave expeditions. “The reflections came from tiny bits of insects the bats had eaten.” When he wakes up a ceilingful of sleepinggray myotis and they begin flying everywhere, dozens land on his head and shoulders; he is unfazed. “They were crawling down my neck and into my shirtsleeves,” he writes. “No need for a net!” They were looking for a place to hide, he realized.
Tuttle went on to discover that bats found hiding places that he hadn’t anticipated, far beyond his shirtsleeves. He took notes on the bats’ comings and goings over many months, and noticed that they seemed to be in decline. He collected his field notes and some specimens and talked his mother into driving him to the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., where a bat specialist became Tuttle’s mentor. Tuttle began banding gray myotis in an effort to help track them. He then learned of a bat-rich cave from an old man at a country store: Fern Cave, in Alabama, “the most complex bat cave I’ve ever seen.” By the time he entered college, he was already an expert. In 1976, Tuttle petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the gray myotis classified as endangered.
“The Secret Lives of Bats” takes us into a great many caves, through tight passageways and into dangerous caverns; there, with him, we discover not just bats’ secrets but humans’ as well, encountering moonshiners and outlaws, some friendly, some not. Throughout the book, Tuttle discovers evidence of people killing bats, often by lighting fires in caves, sometimes by clubbing or stoning the bats, or pursuing them with flamethrowers. In one early scene, he describes graduate students participating in a Department of Health rabies study, killing hundreds of bats instead of collecting them live. The message that comes across, and not just about bats, is the importance of taking care to understand the scarily unfamiliar. Though he doesn’t dwell on it, bats’ cultural association with monsters probably doesn’t help.
Even the much-feared vampire bat, famous for its blood diet, becomes more appealing after Tuttle describes it. Vampire bats “have a social order similar to that of primates. Like humans, they share food and information, adopt orphans, and practice reciprocal altruism.” That means that like us—and like chimpanzees and wild dogs—vampire bats are “most generous to those that have helped them in the past.” They’re also good at not waking up animals while they suck their blood.
In the late seventies, Tuttle was asked to write a chapter about bats for the National Geographic book “Wild Animals of North America.” When looking at photographs with his editor, he came to realize that many existing photographs of bats, which often showed them “snarling in self-defense, with bared teeth,” perpetuated their unpleasant image. He decided to take bat photographs himself, so that people could see bats eating, sleeping, and hunting insects. He learned about photography, and soon found himself on an expedition on an island in the Sea of Cortez. There, he took pictures of bats “roosting high up in cliff-face crevices,” requiring a daring boat ride and a guano-covered cliff-face scramble; like many tales in the book, this one risks death and results in bat-related triumph. He manages to capture some of the bats, set them up in a studio, photograph them, and release them, and gets excellent photographic results, a process he repeats for several decades.
We travel with him to study frog-eating bats at a jungle pond on Barro Colorado Island, Panama; to search for the elusive spotted bat in a low-flying plane over Hondo, Texas, where, during a refuel, he and his pilot are stopped by the D.E.A., the Texas Rangers, and a sheriff; to St. George, Utah, where he goes to seek the largest bat in the United States, the Western bonneted bat; to the Fresno Canyon area, southwest of Presidio, Texas, where he and a colleague get stuck in quicksand; Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, home to ten to twenty million Brazilian free-tailed bats; to a hot-air-balloon ride near Frio Cave, in Texas, where he dangles out by a rope to photograph bats eating moths, then makes an emergency landing; to Kenya, where, while photographing lesser mouse-tailed bats, he braves an area full of cobras and mambas only to be ensnared in stinging nettles; to Thailand, where he encounters tigers, guano miners, caves guarded by monks, and the tiny bumblebee bat, thought to be the world’s smallest mammal, which weighs less than a penny. He also ventures to Springs Island, south of Alaska, where, as he prepares to photograph an unusual hot-spring-heated bat roost, he encounters a group of nude bathers who had arrived via yacht and pontoon plane. He calmly tells the naked people that he’s a bat biologist, and they ask him if he knows Merlin Tuttle. They turn out to have read Diane Ackerman’s book “The Moon by Whale Light,” which begins with a section about Tuttle and his bats, a version of which appeared here in 1988. The bathers were excited to meet him, and they “enthusiastically volunteered to help” capture his bats to be photographed.
Tuttle comes across as a conservationist and scientist first, a combination of Indiana Jones and Mark Trail second. The book is an adventure tale whose reward is always bats. It’s full of snorting bulls, surprising elephants, and sentences like “An ocelot provided one of my greatest thrills.” Meanwhile, we get to know each bat as we would a character in a novel, exploring its world, learning about where it goes and what it does and the moths or beetles or fruit it eats. In a full-color photo spread, a little gallery of bat faces appears in rows, with captions, evoking a high-school yearbook or a rogues’ gallery—wild-eyed nuts and scruffy little mavericks. Each has a different fuzzy face, weird nose, and amusing expression.
Over and over, with the help of information, photographs, and his articles and photographs in National Geographic, Tuttle is able to convince people not to kill bats and destroy their habitats, and even to protect them and to help create sanctuaries. One day, he finds three men outside a sinkhole entrance “speculating on how much fun it would be to sometime throw a stick of dynamite into the cave to see how many would come out all at once.” Once Tuttle educates them, they’re apologetic; they eventually “volunteered their help in habitat restoration.”
Tuttle concludes with an epilogue about threats to bats, namely wind farms and white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that kills cave-hibernating bats. Even there, he sees opportunity, because its dangers have brought attention and therefore help to bats and protection of their habitats.
Though bat killers and skeptics remain, many average people, thanks to Tuttle and people like him, have grown to appreciate bats. A couple of years ago, I rode a subway with a bunch of them. One rush-hour afternoon, on a downtown R train in Manhattan, a group of strangers and I observed a small brown bat hanging upside down from the ceiling, sleeping. It looked like a mammalian cocoon. We gathered around it to stare and smile at it and marvel with each other, amazed, awed, trying not to wake it up.