Bat Conservation International moved to Austin, Texas, in 1986, largely because many Austin citizens – panicked by the harmful myths that have plagued bats for generations – were demanding the eradication of what's now the largest urban bat colony in America.
When the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin was renovated in 1980, engineers inadvertently created an ideal bat roost by adding a series of long, thin joints along the underside of the bridge. Bats by the hundreds of thousands discovered the joys of those cozy crevices and moved in each summer.
"Mass Fear in the Air as Bats Invade Austin," screamed a newspaper headline of the time. A public-health crisis was declared, and citizens demanded action, preferably lethal.
Then Founder Merlin Tuttle moved BCI from Wisconsin to Austin. He and his tiny staff launched a vigorous public-education campaign, meeting with media, community groups, schoolchildren and city leaders. BCI gradually convinced Austinites that they have little to fear and much to gain from the insect-eating Mexican free-tailed bats in their midst.
Not only did the bridge bats survive, but today they attract tens of thousands of visitors each summer to watch their evening emergences. Austinites are proud of the 1.5 million bridge bats and delighted that they eat some 20,000 pounds of insects each summer night. The city bills itself as the Bat Capital of America.
Such is the power of education, of dispelling myths and proving benefits. That is the foundation on which much of BCI's success has been built.
From the earliest days, Tuttle and other BCI staff have addressed public and professional audiences, sat for interviews with print and broadcast journalists and testified before congressional committees at almost every opportunity. That practice is being enthusiastically continued today by Executive Director Nina Fascione.
The sheer novelty of an organization's concern about bats led, at least in part, to a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal on October 27, 1983. One of the first positive stories about bats ever to appear in a national newspaper, the article sparked a modest jump in BCI memberships.
A big factor in winning acceptance for bats is the photography that has come to characterize BCI. Tuttle, asked by the National Geographic Society to write a chapter on bats for a wildlife book, says he was appalled by the bat images planned for the book. In photos obviously taken of roughly handled animals, the bats had their lips drawn back into a wicked-looking snarl of bared teeth – "a posture bats display only in self-defense."
So Tuttle taught himself photography. He became an award-winning wildlife photographer whose photos showed gentle, often cute, animals in repose, or chasing insects, pollinating plants and generally improving the world. The difference was dramatic.
BCI has produced a long list of brochures and other publications aimed at educating the public about bats. The first major effort was The Most Famous Bat in the World booklet, produced in 1984 by Bacardi Imports, an early BCI supporter, that features a stylized fruit bat as its trademark. We have since distributed many thousands of Exploring the Secret World of Bats brochures and Important Bat Facts cards, plus a wide range of other posters and handouts.
Those efforts are greatly bolstered by many of BCI's dedicated members, such as Todd Austin of Illinois, Bonnie Miles of Virginia, Laura Finn of Florida and many others, who give frequent presentations, often using BCI's popular audiovisual programs.
Under Education Director James Eggers, we are developing a Speakers' Bureau to connect qualified volunteers with those seeking bat presentations and to train docents to provide information at the Congress Avenue Bridge and BCI's fabled Bracken Bat Cave, the San Antonio-area summer home of the world's largest bat colony.
Eggers is especially busy now as he leads BCI's role as a Founding Partner for the United Nations-declared International Year of the Bat in 2011-12. He is helping partners around the United States and elsewhere to organize and conduct educational events for this very special time. BCI also provides Year of the Bat materials, which can be downloaded from our website, for these celebrations.
A major partner this year, and into the future, is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. As a member of the AZA Year of the Bat Committee, Eggers is planning and coordinating a wide range of events, including a traveling bat-education program. The committee's goal is to reach 50 million people worldwide during Year of the Bat.
Meanwhile, BCI's website – a word that, like the Internet, did not exist 30 years ago – provides a treasure trove of information on all aspects of bats and Bat Conservation International. An especially popular section of batcon.org is the Kidz Cave, packed with entertaining games, quizzes and activities that aim the story of bats at youngsters.
BCI's education efforts have always included children. Classroom talks and workshops for teachers, supported by such teacher-approved packages as Discover Bats! and the Educator's Activity Book About Bats, have helped take the flying mammals into countless classrooms.
Where once BCI educators visited classrooms of 30 or so students, Outreach Associate Dianne Odegard, accompanied by live bats, recently gave a dose of interactive bat education to 6,363 students in 194 classrooms scattered across nine states from California to New York in a single day. Internet-based "distance learning," sponsored by the Texas Wildlife Association, U.S. Forest Service, Prince William Network and others, magnifies our voice dramatically.
Kids seem to have a natural affinity for bats. Checks for small amounts appear occasionally in BCI's mail from youngsters' fund-raising efforts. When the host of an outdoors-survival program on TV demonstrated an especially unsavory method of killing bats with a torch and a club, classrooms, such as Laura Wright's students at Eanes Elementary School, responded with outrage – and letters. "My question is: Why, why why?" wrote one student. "I think you should come to Austin and meet a real bat that is not being swatted and killed. I still can't believe you did that."
Building a public constituency for bat conservation is essential, but we also need professional biologists and wildlife managers with the skills to study bats and implement conservation. BCI's field-training workshops and Student Research Scholarship Program go a long way toward meeting those needs.
Nina Fascione, who became BCI's Executive Director in March 2010, attended the very first BCI workshop in Toronto, Canada, in 1989. Our current program began in 1991. Since then, we have provided intensive, hands-on training to more than 1,560 professionals and very dedicated amateurs at bat-rich sites in Arizona, California, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
With White-nose Syndrome now devastating bat populations across nearly half the continent, current workshops stress decontamination procedures for preventing human spread of the WNS fungus. And new workshops educate biologists in Advanced Capture Techniques, including those that do not require disturbing bat roosts or handling animals.
BCI conducts frequent workshops on cave- and mine-gating procedures and ensuring water sources are safe and available for bats. The workshops have also been adapted, in collaboration with local partners and the U.S. Forest Service International Programs, to provide field training for biologists, conservationists and students in a growing number of Latin American countries.
Many workshop graduates have gone on to productive careers and leadership positions in bat research and conservation. One recent participant summed up the experience: "Created great enthusiasm for bats and to go forth and educate!"
BCI's first scholarship went to Surapon Duangkhae, a graduate student at Mahidol University in Thailand, in 1986. Since then, BCI's Student Research Scholarship Program has awarded 310 scholarships totaling about $790,000 for conservation-related bat studies in 60 countries.
This investment has not only produced a wealth of new knowledge about bats around the world, but it has also encouraged and nurtured many promising young scientists whose commitment will carry bat conservation and research well into the future.