Bat myths banished: DNR exhibit debunks common misconceptions

Angie Manuel, an interpretative naturalist, speaks to a small crowd at the DNR Amphitheater about misconceptions about bats. Jordan Huffer / BSU Journalism at the Fair
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It may be time to reconsider your opinion about that diseased, blood-sucking, vampire creature living in your own backyard.

Rabies-ridden dirty flying rodent—that's the common misconception about the bat. From Hollywood movies and classic literature depicting a vampire in disguise with a desire for human blood, the bat has become a source of fear for many people.

Angie Manuel, an interpretive naturalist who ran the bat exhibit at the Indiana State Fair on Wednesday, acknowledged that people have a sensationalized fear of bats. She said these fears usually hold a grain of truth, but over time have become something that is far from accurate. Some bats do feed on blood and have fangs, and yes, bats can carry diseases, but most bats don't have these characteristics. She does her best to address these fears and give people a greater knowledge about the animal.

“There's people out there who have big fears,” Manuel said. “My hope is that people can at least learn to appreciate the bat.”

Manuel has presented these bat programs for five years and has been an employee of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, for nine years. In the past she has worked as a bat rehabber, caring for injured and orphaned bats from her home, and she currently works for Prophetstown State Park.

“I got into this field, this career, because of my love for animals,” she said.

During her time as a bat rehabber, Manuel once fed bat pups goat's milk from an eye-shadow wand or modified ShamWow cloth, because pups only eat by suckling. They were fed every three hours for eight days; they had to be fed around the clock because they ate such small amounts at a time. Each week she adjusted their eating habits and food as they grew and changed, just like human babies do.

DNR has a mission to protect and preserve recreational resources in order to benefit Indiana's citizens. Educational programs such as the bat presentation contribute to their goal to preserve wildlife.

“I don't think I've had a question yet that's a real stumper,” Manuel said with a laugh.

Two anxious fairgoers, Della and Jim McKinney, sat in the amphitheater seating before the show began and explained that they came out to learn what they might be doing wrong with their bat box, which is similar to a bird house but designed specifically for bats.

They aren't the only ones who had these questions. The crowd was chattering with bat information and advice to others.

“It's like a little mouse with wings,” said a woman in front. “I think we should build some bat houses,” chimed in another.

Manuel explained that the only blood-sucking bat doesn't even live in North America, bats will not nest in your hair, not all bats carry rabies, they are neither a rodent nor a bird, and in fact they don't carry diseases more prevalently than any other animal. And contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind.

“They have good eyesight,” Manuel said. “But they don't have great eyesight.”

Bats are nocturnal creatures, and because of the darkness, they don't rely on their eyes as much as they do their hearing and a special sense called echolocation. Through echolocation they are able to find insects to eat, avoid flying into obstacles, and also find their young.

Bats are warm-blooded mammals, have live babies, drink milk from their mothers, and have fur, a backbone and also thumbs.

“You have the same finger set up as a bat does,” Manuel said.

The bat's wing can be looked at like a webbed hand. They have four “fingers” within the webbing and also a claw-like thumb that stems off of their wings. To demonstrate just how similar their wings are to a human hand, Manuel invited a smiling, young girl to the front, put pantyhose on her hands, and asked her to spread her fingers. The fingers were connected with the “webbing” and resembled the wings of a bat.

Amy Duncan, a member of the audience and self-proclaimed bat lover, said that attending this show helped her learn a bit more about bats and also built off of things she already knew.

“I thought we only had the cave dwelling bats in Indiana,” Duncan said.

There are hundreds of thousands of bats in Indiana, both cave dwelling and solitary, explained Manuel. Unfortunately, they need help in order for the species to be preserved. White-nose syndrome, a fungus that affects bats usually on the nose or wings, forces the bats to wake up from their hibernation and in the cold winter months, they cannot find any food sources and die. To stop the spread of white-nose syndrome, some caves must be closed to the public because people can transport this fungus in microscopic amounts on their shoes from cave to cave.

“You guys can really help us with our bat situation,” Manuel said. “The mortality is what's really freaking us out.”

The caves affected by white-nose syndrome have a bat mortality rate up to 100 percent, and since 2006, about 6 million bats have died from this fungus, according to the website of U.S. Geological Survey.

“We're not going to instantly see the problem because there's fewer bats,” Manuel said. “But eventually we're going to see out-of-control insect populations.”

Without the bats to feed on insects, there will be more crop damage as well as more diseases spread through insects.

“The biologists that I've talked to consider it very significant, really severe,” Manuel said.

Planting hickory trees and building a bat box are a few other things that can be done to help preserve the bat population. Bats are vital to the ecosystem because they eat 100-1,000 insects each night during the summer. Bats actually help to stop the spread of diseases that insects can carry, and in other places around the world they help their ecosystems with pollination.

“It can only make us a better, more balanced community to live with these animals,” Manuel said.

Alex Kincaid is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a Ball State University immersive-learning project placing 25 student journalists at the heart of the Midway to tell the weird and wonderful stories of the 2014 Indiana State Fair.