Animal Encounter Gold Winner: Land of Kaliedoscopic Shadows

by Carolyn Kraus

Into the Texas Scrub Country with Fear and Loathing.

We were driving through a cow pasture in a Texas heat wave when we saw the bats, 20 million of them, swooping up from a sinkhole in the ground like a tornado cloud. Turning and rising in widening arcs, they peeled off into giant horizontal columns that striped the evening sky for a mile. They kept pouring out and pouring out in waves that would continue for more than three hours.

This was no heat mirage, no druggy hallucination, no emanation of the terrors that flit through the belfries of our minds during sweat-soaked nightmares. The bats were there. And I was there. But why?

Three weeks earlier I’d been standing outside my house in Detroit, Michigan, shivering with fear as I waited for the exterminator to arrive. Not long before, I’d spotted something dark and coat-hangerish clinging to a curtain in my bedroom. I’d dashed to the phone and dialed Boris, my burley, mustachioed next-door neighbor. Timid at first, he jiggled curtain until something wobbled onto the bed and flapped into the bathroom, disappearing behind the shower door.

Grabbing courage and a broom, Boris pulled open the shower door to enact a scene out of Psycho, bashing and thwacking until the creature was bloodless and flat as a slice of salami.

“It must’ve come in through your chimney,” Boris mused as he exhaled deeply, then nudged the leathery corpse into a dustpan with the toe of his sneaker. Together we wedged an antique highboy against the fireplace, but later that afternoon, I spotted another bat clinging to a pot of hanging geraniums. I froze.

Trembling, yet determined to avoid a second bloodbath, I dialed the Michigan Humane Society. “We don’t do bats,” a gruff voice informed me. “For bats, you gotta pay.” The voice referred me to a suburban housewife named Betty who cruises the Detroit area in her Jeep: “She’ll take care of your bats for a fifty-dollar service charge, plus twenty-five dollars per bat.” Betty agreed to appear at my house the following morning.

I shut all the doors, stuffed towels into the threshold cracks, and double-locked the windows. Then, like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, I spent a watchful night on the couch beside the barricaded fireplace.

The next morning Betty pulled up in her black Toyota Jeep with four searchlights mounted on the cab. It had been a busy week, she told me as she reached into her back seat and pulled out a broom. Five or six summonses a day, maybe thirty in all. “People tell me the craziest stories,” she said. A man in Westland had called her insisting that a megabat had emerged from his hairbrush and threatened to brand him with the mark of Dracula. Two Ferndale janitors had run terror-stricken down the hallway of a junior high school with a bat in pursuit, locked themselves in a classroom, and called her on a cell phone. A Detroit woman had vowed to give up her lease after Betty pried four bats from her living room curtains. Most of Betty’s callers are close to hysteria. They want action. They want riddance. “They’re standing outside holding their necks when I show up,” she said. “I guess they’re thinking of vampires. Then, when I pick up the bats, they look at me as if I’m God or something.”

Before venturing into my house, Betty pulled on a pair of elbow-length gloves, picked up a small wire cage, and delivered a surprise: “I’ve been around animals all my life,” she told me. “I don’t like to see them killed.” Betty’s not an exterminator. She’s a liberator.

After nodding at me with index finger pressed to her lips, she snuck up on my one surviving bat, still clinging to the geraniums. Then she pinched it behind the neck and transferred it into the cage like a kitten, explaining that she would drive the creature to a rural area near the Canadian border and set it free. As I followed Betty to her car, my gratitude poured out.

“You’re so brave!” I gushed.

“Not at all,” she replied. “I love bats. They’re one of my favorite animals.”

“Bats have plenty of admirers,” Betty added. Then, noting my skepticism, she referred me to internationally known ecologist, nature photographer, and bat advocate Dr. Merlin Tuttle in Austin, Texas. “Tell him I referred you,” she said. “Doc will straighten you out.”

That very evening I called Dr. Tuttle, who is the founder of Bat Conservation International (BCI), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. “The fear of bats is all panic, hype,” he told me, “sensational media reports encouraged by pest-control companies and rabies research people in the interest of job security. Bats don’t bite you on the neck and they don’t get tangled up in people’s hair.” Tuttle once paid a woman $20 to let him stuff one into her platinum beehive: “I stirred it up a little, but it popped right out,” he said. As for the junior high school incident I’d reported to him, “If the bat happened to be flying down the hall and you could run fast enough, it might seem like it was chasing you.”

I wasn’t convinced. “What about vampires?” I asked him. “What about bats-out-of-hell?”

“Rubbish,” Tuttle insisted, then invited me to fly down to Texas and join him in a little myth-debunking journey Bracken Cave near San Antonio, along with a small troupe of BCI members.

“But Doc,” I protested. “They’ll suck my blood.”

“Meet me in Austin,” came his cryptic reply. “You won’t be disappointed.”

That’s how I wound up on a yellow bus deep in the Texas hill-country scrub, sweating in the heat and staring up at the sky, along with a half-dozen members of Tuttle’s organization.

“We’ve got three-column bats!” came a jubilant shout from the front of the bus, which was pulling up to a lookout point near the bat cave. The speaker was Merlin Tuttle himself. He would be our guide for an evening at Bracken Cave, home to 20 million Mexican free-tail bats, the largest single group of warm-blooded animals known on earth. Right now, they were headed out for the streetlights of Austin and San Antonio to forage for their evening meal and hang out until dawn. Tuttle had promised “the world’s largest bat emergence.” And, as the scorched ground grew cooler beneath kaleidoscopic shadows cast by the bat mass overhead, no one would challenge that claim.

It was the first bat mission for our driver, a pale, silent fellow with “Ralph” embroidered on the breast of his Texas Bus Company uniform. He pulled into the lookout point, slammed on the brakes, and stared up at the bat-black sky, smiling wanly, as we filed off the bus and set out folding chairs amidst cactus and limestone boulders near the rim of a limestone pit surrounding the cave. Cautiously, Ralph emerged from the bus to join us. Occasionally removing his glasses to wipe off drifting bat fur, he cast narrow-eyed glances at his passengers and mumbled, “I didn’t know there was a bat society.”

The Society members had arrived from as far away as Boston and Los Angeles and met the bus at a freeway exit near San Antonio. Someone’s red T-shirt summed up the group’s sentiments in three words: “Bats Need Friends.”

They have no more devoted friend than the group’s founder, Dr. Tuttle, who was now merrily netting stragglers from the lower reaches of the swirling batmass. In spite of four decades in this business, Tuttle was not the fanged and black-caped Transylvanian you might expect. Dressed in safari shorts with a transistorized bat detector strapped to his belt, he looked like a gray-haired Boy Scout. Tuttle extracted a half-ounce captive from the net, and launched into an impromptu lecture.

Tenderly holding up the bat, he pointed out its cat-mouse face, little hyena ears and fingers that spread out like spokes of an umbrella to form wings, the source of the bat’s scientific name: Chiroptera, meaning “hand wing.” The creature submitted passively to its role as visual aid, making no attempt to bite in self-defense. Repeating what he’d told me on the phone following my encounter with Betty back home in Detroit, Tuttle insisted that reports of dangerous, evil-spirited bats are “just bad press.”

Blood-eating vampire bats are confined to the tropics, Tuttle said, and they seldom bite humans anyway. As for rabies, any wild mammal—like a raccoon, skunk, fox or bat—can have rabies. But a rabid bat would be sick, not predatory, and the incidence of transmission to humans is rare.

Far from being destructive, Tuttle said, bats benefit us in many ways. They’re natural insecticides; the Bracken Cave colony would consume a quarter million pounds of mosquitoes before dawn. They’re a vital part of the seed dispersal and pollination chain that provides us with bananas, dates, avocados and peaches.

Tuttle handed around binoculars and we peered across a field of wild persimmons and cactus into the cavern. It was wall-to-wall bats in there—300 per square foot—and the floor was a forty-foot layer of steaming bat guano, the world’s richest fertilizer. Three-hundred thousand pounds of it would be “mined” here after the bats had flown south for the winter, a migration that has occurred continuously, Tuttle said, for more than 10,000 years.

“Keep back,” Tuttle warned unnecessarily, one arm stretched toward us, flat palm raised like a traffic cop. “Right now those fumes would kill you in two minutes.”

By winter, the fumes would die down. After the bubbling guano has been processed by the billions of microbes and beetles that thrive on the floor of the cave, after the bats have flown south on their November migration, the guano would begin to dry out. In early December, laborers would swarm into the cave to harvest the fertilizer. They would shovel the guano into a hopper attached to a vacuum pipe designed to suck it upward through a shaft that was installed for a more primitive version of this process more than a hundred years ago. With the advent of chemical fertilizers, demand for guano declined, then revived in recent decades with the rise of organic gardening. These days, the natural fertilizer is prized for its high nitrogen and phosphorous content.

At the cave’s mouth stood the remains of a nineteenth-century furnace, a reminder that the bats of Bracken Cave have played strategic roles at several moments in American history. During the Civil War, the furnace was used to convert guano into saltpeter to make explosives for the Confederacy. During World War II, bat-snagging marines invaded the area on a top-secret mission called Project X-Ray. The plan was to flash-freeze the bats into temporary hibernation, strap tiny incendiary time bombs to their chests, and load them on bombers headed for Japan. When the plane reached its target city, thousands of drowsy bats would plummet to earth and seek refuge in dark crevices of buildings until the bombs exploded and the city went up in flames. But after two million dollars had been spent on local practice runs, Project X-Ray was abandoned. The bats couldn’t get the timing right. Some failed to wake up from hibernation, some blew up too soon—all lacked the kamikaze spirit.

Tuttle’s furry captive apparently shared its ancestor’s pacifism. It had dozed off in his palm as, nearby, predatory hawks dove at the bat swarm and slender coachwhip snakes cased the ground for injured stragglers.

Far greater than the perils of this ecological carnival, however, were those posed by human ignorance. “Most people want bats to go extinct,” Tuttle said. We poison them with pesticides, dynamite their caves, destroy their natural habitats and consider it good riddance. If I told people I would eliminate all the bats instead of asking for help in saving them, I could probably raise ten times more money.”

As night fell Tuttle opened his hand, and our visual aid flapped off to join the bat ranks still trickling out of the cave. If the evening had been a confirmation for the busload of bat fanciers, it had been a revelation for me. The world held one less terror and billions more fellow creatures. It wasn’t immediately clear what the evening had been for Ralph, our bus driver, who had sat through the lecture/demonstration, attentive but silent.

But back on the bus, as we took our seats for the bumpy ride back to the freeway, Ralph was suddenly talkative. “I’m downright grateful for those bats,” he said as he aimed the bus back down the dusty cow path. “When I go to bed at night, it’ll be nice just knowing they’re out there, workin’ the streets.”

Carolyn Kraus teaches Journalism and Screen Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her work has appeared in literary, academic, and general-audience publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Threepenny Review, The Antioch Review, Biography, English Language Notes, and Women’s Studies Quarterly.

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