When they first enter the viewing area, visitors often take one look at the big bats hanging from branches and ropes or stretching their great wings in flight and reach out to confirm the reassuring presence of a glass barrier. But there is none. And with that discovery, an expression of concern clouds many a face. Then they lean warily between the wood columns and observe the objects of their anxiety. You can watch a look of awe and wonder spread across their faces. In that magic moment, Disney's Animal Kingdom changes a fundamental and dangerous misconception about bats.
That needless fear of bats is but one of many myths that fall as Disney applies its special touch to bat conservation and education, not only at Walt Disney World in Florida but, through the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, around much of the world.
The bats of Disney's Animal Kingdom live in the Cliffs of Anandapur exhibit, part of the Maharajah Jungle Trek in the park's Asia-themed area. The trek includes habitats for komodo dragons, tapirs, primates, tigers, hoofed animals, and a variety of birds in a walk-through aviary. The fruit bats are among the headliners.
The display, designed in close collaboration with Bat Conservation International Founder Merlin Tuttle, features two remarkable species: the Malayan flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) and the Rodrigues fruit bat (Pteropus rodricensis). The Malayan flying fox, also known as the large fruit bat, is easily the largest of the world's bats. Its wingspan can exceed six feet (1.8 meters). Never before has a bat so large been on public display in North America, and the effect on visitors is dramatic.
The Rodrigues fruit bat, though much smaller, plays a key role in the educational aspect of the exhibit. It is among the rarest of mammals. Native to the single Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues in Mauritius (near Madagascar), the species seemed destined for extinction just a quarter century ago, when only 70 Rodrigues fruit bats survived. Intense conservation efforts and a captive-breeding program have increased the population to around several thousand. The legacy of this species' return from the brink of extinction gives us a perfect conservation message for our guests.
The Animal Kingdom has 20 Malayan flying foxes and 7 Rodrigues fruit bats. The bats, all of them males, came from the Lubee Foundation, Inc., of Gainesville, Florida, in 1998. The nonprofit organization, dedicated to conserving Old World fruit bats, was founded by the late Luis F. Bacardi of the Bacardi Rum family, an early and stalwart supporter of BCI.
The bats' home is a 100,000-cubic-foot (2,830-cubic-meter) free-flight area, plus an adjacent holding area with another 10,000 cubic feet (283 cubic meters). The fruit bats' diet includes a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables, plus various vitamin and mineral supplements.
Our bats, which were all born in captivity, have experienced no significant problems, thanks in large part to Disney's husbandry program. By providing two flight areas, we can clean and maintain one while the bats are in the other. This sharply reduces disturbance and stress.
Visitors get a clear and unobstructed view of the bats from the indoor viewing area, where employees are always available to answer questions. Bat talks are broadcast into the viewing area periodically, ensuring that every guest hears at least a few fun bat facts and a conservation message.
These employees are important and knowledgeable educators with the opportunity to teach thousands of people a day about the true nature and value of bats. They meet with the animal-keepers before the park opens to receive updated information and discuss any new questions and topics.
The keepers themselves conduct bat talks from inside the bat habitat. Bats are not handled, although keepers describe their behavior and anatomy. Conducting these presentations while standing among the bats clearly demonstrates to our guests that these are gentle, non-aggressive animals.
Then there is the Presenter Team, a specialized group of wildlife educators who take the twin messages of conservation and education into every corner of the park. Each team member is trained and tested for two weeks on virtually every animal in our collection. They use a life-size cloth model to explain the characteristics of bats, emphasize the importance of bats to the Earth's environmental health, and explain the advantages of building bat houses to attract bats to our own backyards.
Rafiki's Planet Watch is an educational walking tour that shows guests how to build their own backyard habitat for local wildlife and encourages personal participation in conservation. A bat house and graphics demonstrate the importance of bats in our neighborhoods. The walk winds up at the EcoWeb computer station, a source of detailed information on specific wildlife and conservation issues and how to get involved. Guests can receive free printouts of bat information, blueprints for building bat houses, and contact information for such key organizations as BCI.
The Kids' Explorers Club takes children ages three to eight on a six-stop learning tour of the park that includes an interactive explanation of how fruit bats use their keen sense of smell to find food.
Bats also figure into classwork at Disney's Center of Excellence, part of the semester-long work-study program for college students at Walt Disney World Resort. Interns earn college credits by attending an assortment of classes, including an elective bat class taught by the animal-keeping staff. The class covers conservation information, natural history, and bat behavior. It also teaches students how to separate bat myths from bat truths in hopes of countering the often-negative image of bats found in the media. In addition to students, full-time employees from all over Walt Disney World are also invited to attend the class.
Our commitment to bat conservation is also demonstrated at Disney's Vero Beach Resort, nearly 80 miles southeast of Walt Disney World. There, guests can attend an evening education and activity session on a variety of environmental topics, including bats. Following the session, they may tour the resort's lake shore, which has now been furnished with bat houses. The message: Bat houses can improve your own neighborhood by attracting these fascinating, insect-eating mammals.
For years, Boy Scout troops from across the nation, as well as Florida schoolchildren, have been visiting Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort to learn about local wildlife. Bats are now part of the experience, thanks to a pair of conspicuous bat houses installed by Laura Finn of Fly By Night, Inc./BCI. They are being included in educational programs conducted by both the Y.E.S. (Youth Education Series) program and Disney's Wilderness Adventures staff. These two houses give us the opportunity to spread the word of bat conservation to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children and adults every week.
And we have stretched our wings far beyond the parks and resorts, as the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund promotes wildlife conservation through relationships with scientists, educators, and organizations committed to preserving Earth's biodiversity.
Financing for the fund comes in part from Disney's Add-a-Dollar Program, under which our guests have the opportunity to help conservation efforts by contributing a dollar when they make purchases at the park. One hundred percent of the money is awarded to nonprofit organizations that protect and study endangered and threatened animals and their habitats.
Hundreds of organizations have benefited from the fund, including many that work directly for bat conservation. Among Bat Conservation International programs that have received support are the Global Grassroots Conservation Fund, Latin American Bat Conservation Project, Bats Aloft Field Research Project, and the Program for the Conservation of Migratory Bats.
Is all this effort working? During the “soft opening” of the Maharaja Jungle Trek in late 1998 and early 1999, guests were polled as they left the area on their favorite attraction. The bats never ranked lower than second, trailing only the dramatic tigers in popularity. And sometimes, even in the face of the tigers' fierce competition, the fruit bats ruled polls. “Bats,” concluded one guest, “are the cutest animals in the park.”
Tigers are always and predictably popular. It turns out that just giving people the opportunity to see and learn a little about bats can put these much-maligned mammals in the same category. That's the magic of the Kingdom.