For Love of Bats

Rehabilitators Assist These Misunderstood Mammals

"Life has a way of dropping bombshells just when you least expect them," says Amanda Lollar, who was enjoying her life as the co-owner of a small furniture store in the town of Mineral Wells, Texas. Amanda’s bombshell weighed only 11 grams and was no bigger than a business card. "I was on my way to the bank to make a deposit," says Lollar. "It was one of those miserably hot days when you hate to step outside. Then right in front of the bank I looked down and saw a tiny creature lying on its back baking in the sun."

Amanda Lollar, former bat-phobe, has now saved 7,500 of them.©BAT WORLD SANCTUARY

Closer inspection revealed that the creature was a bat. "My first reaction was a shudder of revulsion," admits Lollar. "Like a lot of people I thought bats were pretty creepy. But the poor thing was obviously suffering, so I scooped it up with a piece of newspaper, carried it back to the shop, and put it in a shoebox. I was sure it was going to die. When it didn"t, I knew I had to help."

Fifteen years and some 7,500 bats later, Lollar has gone from being leery of bats to being totally dedicated to their health and preservation. Not only has she turned her former furniture store into a rehabilitation center and sanctuary for injured bats, but has written books on their care, and founded Bat World Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public and providing training and support for individuals and wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Lollar is that she is not alone in her commitment to one of the world’s most misunderstood and maligned creatures. All across the United States and Canada a growing number of men and women from all walks of life are choosing to take the steps to become a licensed bat rehabilitator.

Becoming a bat Samaratin is no small feat. According to Dick Wilkins, a licensed rehabilitator working out of San Diego, California, a would-be rehabber can expect to spend several thousand dollars to get started. "Because bats are a rabies vector species [meaning they can catch and transmit the disease], you have to be vaccinated," says Wilkins. "The shots cost about $500. Next, you need to buy at least $200 worth of books to educate yourself about the anatomy, feeding and medical care of bats. Then, you"ll spend anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 for cages, food, medicine and medical supplies." Finally, there is the matter of obtaining permits from the state and federal governments, which, as Wilkins puts it, "want to be sure you know what you’re doing because you"ll be interfacing with the public."

So why get involved? Without exception, rehabilitators talk about their fascination with bats. "Most people don’t realize how intelligent and valuable bats are," says Lollar. But according to Melinda Alvarado, a rehabber working out of San Luis Obispo, California, all you have to do is meet a bat to be hooked. "They look right at you with their bright little eyes," she says, "and you can see the intelligence and curiosity shining there."

For others, such as Pat Winters, the founder of California Bat Conservation Fund (CBCF), it’s a chance to dispel negative myths about bats and educate the public about their importance in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Bats pollinate plants, disperse seeds and consume tons of nuisance insects. A single little brown bat, for example, can catch 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in just one hour. They also feed on beetles, moths, leaf-hoppers and other insects that cost farmers and foresters billions of dollars every year.

"The only way bats are going to survive," says Winters, who has been giving educational programs at schools in the San Francisco Bay area for more than 20 years and coordinates a team of five rehabbers, "is if people come to understand and appreciate them." He explains, "Introducing kids to bats is the key. Once they meet a live bat and see how small and gentle they are, they’re not afraid anymore. In fact, they become our biggest fans."

Many bat rehabilitators are also interested in contributing to the scientific community. Barbara French, for example, a biologist at Bat Conservation International (BCI), has been studying the vocalizations of Mexican free-tail bats for years. Together with Lollar, she has co-authored a book on the sounds they use to communicate. "It was our long-term care of these bats that gave us the opportunity to know individual animals and subsequently associate their behaviors with specific vocalizations," says French. "Information learned by rehabbers can make contributions even beyond the species they care for. For example, the language information we have gathered from the free-tail bats is of great interest to neurophysiologists who study the relationship between language and the brain."

But bat rehabilitation has not always enjoyed such popularity and support. Sue Barnard, a biologist who works for Zoo Atlanta and first began caring for injured bats 50 years ago, says, "Back then the word "rehab" was not used. We just tried to "save" an animal. That meant a cardboard box, hot water bottle, towel and drinking water." Likewise Winters can remember when wildlife rescue centers in California wouldn’t accept and routinely euthanized bats that came in. Recently, however, the state has decided to educate personnel at its centers and has asked Winters to author a guide on the rehabilitation and care of captive bats. "To me this is proof that education can work," says Winters, "but without rehabilitation we can’t educate."

Today, there are approximately 400 licensed bat rehabilitators working in the U.S. and Canada and the number is growing. In part this is due to the efforts of BCI, Bat World Sanctuary, CBCF and others who have been actively working to educate the public about the value of bats. "The Internet has significantly improved the ability of individuals who care for wildlife to communicate and share their experiences with one another," adds French. "And more veterinarians are becoming interested in assisting wildlife rehabilitators."

Lollar has been working to establish a network of rehabilitation centers that share common goals, such as creating education and outreach programs, and have agreed to maintain high standards of care. She also maintains an online forum known as World Bat Line, where rehabilitators, scientists, veterinarians and the public can share information.

"Having a network of trained and committed people in place is the first step to really helping bats," says Lollar. "But we’ve still got a long way to go."