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Robert Scheer

Bat 'a Girl: Preservationist Patricia Winters introduces Jennifer, a pallid bat with a sunny disposition.

Patricia Winters believes her small friends could hold the world's fate in their tiny wings

By Sarah Phelan

FORGET ABOUT BATS in the belfry--Patricia Winters has them inside her sweatshirt. I first stumbled across this California bat conservationist midway through one of her hard-hitting but humorous lectures down at the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum.

I took one look and figured she must be having one seriously bad shoulder-pad day, but frankly, I didn't give a toss. All I wanted were the gory details about Dracula's sidekicks from hell. But instead of fangs and fables, I received a well-aimed mental kick in the pants and a major attitude adjustment.

That shift began when the bulge on Winters' right shoulder suddenly flopped across her chest. Without missing a beat, Winters felt around inside her shirt and tenderly drew out a big brown bat called Trinket, who looked small, because my point of reference was one of those black, owl-sized and anatomically incorrect Halloween cardboard cutouts.

As Winters explained, "On this continent, we have no megabats, only microbats, most of which could be mailed for the price of a first-class stamp." None of them is black, and like individually wrapped chocolates, they range vastly in color from dark brown to pale cream.

Want to go batty? Check out these web sites.

The Buzbee Bat House: Tons of bat web links from a big bat fan.

Bat Conservation International: A nonprofit group dedicated to informing people about bats.

Bat Quiz: Test your bat knowledge.

Trinket crawled about obligingly until Winters began to handle another little bat called Jennifer, at which point Trinket began squeaking excitedly. "Oh, she's just jealous," explained Winters matter-of-factly, every inch the dedicated foster mom. "Big brown bats are very cranky and territorial, and right now she's bombarding Jennifer with sound waves to warn her off."

Pointing at Trinket, who appeared to be snarling savagely, she added, "Although photographers love to take them in this ominous-looking pose, really she's doing nothing more than curling back her lips to let out high-pitched squeaks, which luckily we can't hear, since they range somewhere in between jackhammers and jet engines."

Far from being winged rats, it seems bats have more in common with journalists--both much maligned and misunderstood orders of mammals often accused of leech-like behavior. Most closely related to monkeys and with almost 1,000 species worldwide, bats account for about 25 percent of all mammals. Their order, Chiroptera, means "winged hand," and, when viewed in silhouette, their skeleton bears an uncanny resemblance to humans. That probably explains the source of the shape-shifting legends that have flitted in and out of worldwide folklore.

But despite Winters' down-to-earth explanations, I found it hard to shake off all those negative stereotypes in one short afternoon. After all, our fear of bats is centuries old, reinforced by myriad spine-chilling superstitions, bloodcurdling best-sellers and box-office hits. Here in the no-nonsense '90s, otherwise resolute men and women still panic when winged creatures pour from a cave and brush past by the thousands. Furthermore, screamingly successful movies like Dracula have only served to export these misconceptions internationally.

Small wonder, then, that I momentarily flashed on teeth-sinking scenes of vampires when I noticed that the beautiful, chalk-faced Morgan Venable from the Native Animal Rescue was wearing a polo-neck sweater, despite the warm spring weather, and seemed to be looking at my lily-white neck with interest.

The Roar of the Garlic, The Smell of the Crowd

FILLED WITH A SUDDEN and inexplicable thirst for more knowledge, I pressed Winters to let me visit her and her bat menagerie up in Marin County, where she lives above a huge white barn. But driving up Highway 1 a week later, the Pacific Ocean sent visions of eternity-seeking vampires dancing through my head. I began to lose my nerve.

What if I was just a classic victim, drawn like a moth to the death-bearing flame? Pulling off the road at Half Moon Bay, I hunted out the biggest bulb of garlic money could buy, along with a loaf of garlic bread, which I tore apart greedily. All to no avail. Winters didn't flinch when she opened her door to find me--garlic in hand--climbing the steep, cobwebbed stairs that lead to her home. But then, as educational director of the California Bat Conservationist fund, she's probably seen worse.

Instead of showing her exasperation at such crass ignorance, she simply grabbed the opportunity by the throat, leading me into her well-lit and mirrored apartment, and teasing me that her bats "don't mind garlic at all. It's the smell of humans that they really don't like."

Before handling her adoptive brood of eight female bats, Winters donned white cotton gloves, a health regulation that has her fuming about bureaucrats "because it unnecessarily panics the public." She introduced "her girls" one by one (only she is allowed to touch the chinchilla-like fur and paper-thin wings of these vulnerable little creatures). Cuteness aside, it's clear she's well acquainted with their strengths and weaknesses.

We hear about Trinket's temper tantrums, Jennifer's fat attack and Smidgen's fear of flying, which prevented her from migrating with her family of Mexican free-tailed bats, who like to climb up to two miles high, catching tail winds to carry them long distances at more than 60 mph. With adorable names like Truffles, Lefty and Ruby Tuesday, some will eventually return to freedom, while others, permanently crippled, are with her for the long run.

Either way, Winters' gentle, affectionate attitude during their rehabilitation is a surrogate for their natural habitat--the protective matriarchal bat colony. There they'd stay with their mother for an average 30-year life span, unlike the girl-crazy male bats, who live nearby in satellites and show up at night to hunt, groom and socialize with females, which they drop in the morning.

But whether male or female, "if you find a bat in the wild, don't treat it like a cuddly toy," Winter cautions. "Follow the rule that any wild animal sick enough to be captured is too sick to handle."

When she bought her first bat at a swap meet for $2 three decades ago, neither animal shelters nor accurate bat information existed. Her vet insisted that initial bat would "be dead within two weeks, since all bats are rabid," Winters says. "He claimed there were tons around, despite disease, because they reproduce wildly."

Too Fat to Fly

WINTERS LIVED AND LEARNED that the vet was wrong on both counts. Only one in 1,000 bats in Northern California is rabid and 99 percent of all rabies is spread by dogs. Of the 1 percent of bats that do contract rabies, fewer than half bite in self-defense and pose little threat to people who don't handle them. What's more, it's bats that are threatened by people. In spite of a relatively long life, they are particularly vulnerable to extinction because they're the slowest-reproducing mammals on earth, bearing only one baby per year. Their habitat is rapidly declining because of urban development and increased deforestation.

With losses of bats occurring at an alarming rate worldwide, Winters sees them "as the canary in the coal mine, warning us of the effects of unhealthily high levels of DDT and other pesticides."

Killing bats amounts to serious planetary damage, since bats are enormously beneficial bug busters, primary pollinators and seed distributors. Consider the bat facts: As vital top predators, 70 percent of bats eat insects, each catching an impressive 600 mosquitoes an hour. Since they digest every insect in a recordbreaking 15 minutes, their guano is the richest fertilizer known to humans. Another 27 percent of bats pollinate and disperse seeds of everything from bananas to cashews with giant organ- pipe cacti in between.

The remaining 3 percent are vampires, rare in a natural pristine rain forest, but on the rise as people cut trees down for cattle ranches, and bats wake up to find 500 cows parked outside their door. As Winters comments wryly, "The resulting problem isn't the bats, but the ecosystem that's out of whack."

That realization got her involved at an educational level eight years ago, and today she tours Northern California dispelling myths about bats with her amusing but fact-filled presentations and the aid of flying teaching assistants. She points out "how horrible life would be without bats to control insects like malaria-bearing mosquitoes."

Winters proves that bats aren't blind by showing that they don't get stuck in your hair, but fly close to your head, using echolocation to skillfully scoop up any mosquitoes, which are attracted by the carbon monoxide in your breath.

And while Smidgen may never overcome her fear of flying, she accompanies Winters to help kids overcome their bat phobias by seeing that bats are neither dirty nor diseased, but fastidiously clean and remarkably healthy. They also look like little foxes.

Jennifer, too, is a permanent fixture on the teaching roster, ever since she got too fat to fly, because she cut flight practice and pigged out at the feeding bowls. As Winters offers her a nice juicy vitamin-loaded mealworm, she points at the tubby bat and sums it up perfectly: "After all, who could be afraid of a bat named Jennifer with a weight problem?"

For more information on the California Bat Conservation Fund, call 415/893-9532. For help with an injured bat or details about educational programs, call Patricia Winters at 415/893-9532 or Morgan Venable of Native Animal Rescue in Santa Cruz at 426-5304.

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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