Of all the creatures she has encountered over her professional life, Elmwood Park Zoo Educational Manager Sam Navarino has gained a special affinity for bats.
Actually, it's part of her overall attraction to animals she considers in need an image makeover in the eyes of the general public. "I like all the misunderstood animals," she says. "Show me a misconstrued, misunderstood animal, and I'm like, ‘I'll change the world.'"
In advance of this weekend's International Bat Night, August 24-25, she offers some zoological myth-busting about bats. One by one, she tackles their most pervasive PR problems.
They'll Suck My Blood. "Vampire bats," counters Navarino, "live in South America, not North America. There are only two species of vampire bats that drink the blood of mammals, and those feed only on donkeys, pigs and cows," she says. So not only are vampire bats not to be feared, they've got a decided upside as well: "There are studies going on with these bats because they have an anticoagulant in their saliva. They're using these bats to help stroke victims," she says.
Okay, Well, They Still Might Be Rabid. Statistically, animals that average people are more likely to encounter - foxes, dogs, raccoons, etc. - are far more likely to carry rabies. Navarino cites Centers for Disease Control stats that show, on average, only one or two annual cases of humans contacting rabies in the U.S. from a bat bite.
A bat at Elmwood Park Zoo
Anyone watching a bat fly may falsely assume it is ill based solely on the way it is flying. "People get this idea because of the erratic flight behavior of a bat that looks like it's drunk. The reason bats fly like that instead of the steady flight of a bird is because bats are flying after bugs. And they're using echolocation to find them. If you've ever seen how a moth flies, for instance, they fly up, down, side to side. They're very erratic. So a bat is flying after a moth, but a bat isn't really using his eyesight, he's using echolocation, which means he makes high-pitched sounds that bounce off. So he's flying crazy because the moth is flying crazy. It has nothing to do with his health. He's hunting," Navarino says.
They'll Get in My Hair. Bats that have the agility to track a flittering bug certainly have the wherewithal to avoid getting tangled in someone's hair. Navarino points out that this unnecessary fear arose mostly from the 1963 Hitchcock film The Birds, which featured onscreen depictions of birds - not bats - frightfully enmeshed in women's hairdos.
They're a Nuisance. Far from being a pest, bats actually play a huge beneficial role in the ecosystem, says Navarino. "In the U.S., bats are insectivores, meaning they eat insects. One little brown bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in one hour. Now imagine if that species is wiped out. The surge in mosquito populations would be exponential," she warns. More mosquitoes would then spike rates of the diseases they carry, such as malaria and West Nile Virus.
Sam with Snow White the owl, another Elmwood Park Zoo resident
There's an economic benefit to bats' diets as well, countering the charge that they're a nuisance. "It's projected that bats typically save U.S. farmers $74 per acre," Navarino says, "because bats are eating bugs. They're a natural pesticide for farmers' crops." Without them, statistics estimate a yearly $3.7 billion in crop loss. They also help with fertilization and pollination.
They're Ugly. On this point, the Elmwood Park expert concedes the point somewhat: "There are some bats - I'm not going to lie to you - that are absolutely hideous. If you've ever seen a picture of a hammerhead bat (found only in Africa), that thing is ugly." Navarino admits.
But she quickly continues: "If you've ever seen pictures of flying foxes, they look like a fox with wings. They are so cute. But they look like a fox. The bats we have in North America, a lot of them are cute: Little brown bats, brown bats, or big brown bats, red bats, hoary bats. I think they're cute."
One more truism about bats that Navarino wants the public to know. If it weren't for bats and their ability to cross-pollinate the fruit of the blue agave plant in Mexico, tequila would not exist.
Navarino not only recommends learning more about bats but also cultivating them as well. Backyard bat boxes are becoming increasingly popular ways to coexist with bats and gain the benefit of their hunting and fertilization skills, without the drawback of having them roost where they are unwanted. Manmade bat houses also replenish bats' dwindling habitats, which have been encroached on by increased urbanization. They also are one means of restoring bat populations devastated by a fungal infection currently devastating bat populations. White-nose syndrome, named for the fungus that grows on their faces and wings, disrupts bats' hibernation patters with fatal implications. Bat boxes can provide a better environment for hibernation, away from exposure to the fungus.
Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, PA
Directions on how to build and populate bat boxes are available from multiple online sources, including the Organization for Bat Conservation.
For viewing bats during International Bat Night, Montgomery County offers several open-air vantage points where they can be seen wheeling and darting across the velvet sky. Try Green Lane Park, Valley Forge National Historical Park or Lorimer Park.
And since bats are nocturnal, a late night of watching the skies may encourage you to roost for the night rather than flying home. Our Weekends Rule! packages are still in effect, giving you the chance to fold your wings and hang for a while. Or perhaps enjoy a tequila at the bar.