Media & Education
Volume 35, Issue 1, 2016
A Passion for Sharing
Curiosity and a desire to educate drive BCI volunteers to reveal the beauty and wonder of bats to others
By Michelle Z. DONAHUE
Home remodeler, retired schoolteacher, college student, property appraiser. The roster of people who donate their personal time in the name of bats is as diverse as any cross-section of American life. Yet BCI volunteers share a common fervor: a fascination for bats and a desire to help others better appreciate an oft-misunderstood creature. For them, the line between “volunteer” and “private citizen” is often blurred, as many BCI volunteers carry their message through their daily lives.
At Bracken Cave, volunteers clear brush, maintain the trails and grounds, and conduct hundreds of tours and talks each summer. At Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, docents come four nights a week to help educate thousands of visitors who come to watch the bats’ nightly emergence during the summer months. Elsewhere, volunteers contribute time toward countless unseen tasks.
Fran Hutchins, director of Bracken Cave Preserve, started out as a volunteer in 2001 with a caving group, Bexar Grotto, that has been helping maintain the privately owned property since BCI purchased it in 1992. Today, Hutchins relies upon dozens of unpaid helpers who donate an estimated 5,000 hours a year to maintain the Bracken Cave Preserve that BCI owns, as well as the adjacent Cibolo Bluffs Preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. Together, the two properties total 3,462 acres.
“My girlfriend wouldn’t know what I look like,” Hutchins laughs, musing on life without volunteers. Many people, he says, come because of a love for the outdoors, but stay for the bats.
“Seeing a bat flight plucks some emotional cord,” Hutchins says. “It piques their interest in bats, and that’s usually what gets them coming back.”
Bettina Jary-Mathis, who has been involved with BCI since 1991 and who currently serves on its board of directors, says she’d love to see more youth involvement, noting that as kids become involved in outreach, so do their families. “When I was growing up, we knew about conservation, but there wasn’t the education like there is today,” Mathis says. “Kids now are more environmentally aware and more motivated to educate others, no matter where they are, to protect it. They get their parents involved, too.” Dianne Odegard, BCI’s manager of education and public outreach, coordinates volunteer activities at Congress Avenue Bridge. The strength of BCI’s volunteers is their very diversity, she says. “They not only share information and dispel the myths surrounding bats with the public, who have come from all over the country and world, but also with their friends, families, organizations and communities,” Odegard says. “It really has ripple effects.”
What follows are just a few of those ripple-effect stories about BCI volunteers who have found a way to give back through bats.
Bracken Cave volunteer since 1978
A fixture in Kurt Menking’s life since he was a youngster in the 1960s, the area around Bracken Cave was where Menking would hunt, swim and fish with family friends. Often, while leaving, they’d see bats begin to swirl out for their nightly foraging.
Other hunters came, too, to witness the same spectacle. But rather than merely watch, Menking describes how they’d sometimes unload shotgun rounds into the sinkhole, trying to goad bats to come out earlier, or compete for the most creatures they could knock out with a single blast when the air was thick with wings.
He struggles to find words to describe those moments. “I’ve always had a fascination with caves, and seeing the abuses and silliness going on out there was ...” Menking breaks off. “The ability to show people that bats are friendly, and an important part of the ecosystem, has always been important to me.”
As a volunteer with the Bexar Grotto Cavers group before BCI acquired Bracken Cave, Menking took many church and scouting groups on informal tours at the previous owner’s behest. Today, he does fewer talks but still helps with “whatever Fran needs me to do.”
“I’ve watched the protected area go from five acres around the entrance to almost 4,000 acres,” he says. “I really believe the hundreds of thousands of people who have watched the bat flights over the last 50 years helped create the groundswell to protect it. And it was the volunteers and staff who helped spread education about bats, so that when it came time for action, it all could happen.”
Don and Edith Bergquist
Bracken Cave and Congress Avenue Bridge volunteers since 2006
Don and Edith Bergquist’s home in San Antonio’s hill country overlooks a valley etched with a small, winding gravel road. After moving to their house in 2005 upon retiring, the Bergquists got to chatting with a neighbor, who informed them there was a bat cave down that road. Stunned and intrigued, the Bergquists quickly joined BCI.
“There’s just something that drew us there,” Edith says of the cave. “We thought it would be a great idea for us to give some of our time.” Don, a self-described introvert who reads voraciously about bats, and Edith, active in a local quilting group, say their volunteer activities have given them an unexpectedly rich outlet. They give talks and lead tours at the cave—“Some of the most insightful questions come from children,” Don says—and have also inspired many of their own peers to become involved with bat conservation. From a handful of other neighbors who were BCI members when they joined, the couple estimates that probably 60 percent of their neighbors are now BCI members and volunteers.
“It was something we were excited about, to share that excitement with friends and neighbors and even people you run into at the store,” Edith says. “It’s amazing how many families have joined BCI and come to the cave just by talking about it.”
Congress Avenue Bridge volunteer since 2008
As a remodeler of older homes, Lee Mackenzie often runs into critters who’ve set up shop in a cozy attic: squirrels, raccoons, rats and, naturally, bats. He met his wife, BCI’s Education Manager Dianne Odegard, through wildlife rehabilitation groups that helped relocate the animals; Mackenzie and Odegard still rehabilitate bats together.
After meeting Odegard, Mackenzie started volunteering with BCI, particularly at the Congress Avenue Bridge, where he interacts with visitors every Thursday through Sunday night, on top of a physically exhausting day job. He has also monitored NOAA Doppler radar every night for the last four years to watch bat emergences around the area, which helps him share more detailed information about the bats’ activities once they depart from their bridge roosts.
Mackenzie adds that he loves to share facts with the public that help alter their view of bats and their role in the world.
“When people see a little bat in your gloved hand, they can look in their tiny eyes and see how fragile and beautiful and delicate they are,” he says. “That can be a life-changing moment for a lot of people. The more you see something, the more curious you are, and the more you learn, the more passionate you become. That’s the process that led me to want to share all that I’ve learned.”
Congress Avenue Bridge volunteer since 2012
Growing up, Christie Gardner often visited a great-uncle’s farm, exploring the fields, forests and streams when the adult conversation inside became tedious. As an elementary school teacher, Gardner conveyed her passion for nature to children through an environmental club she ran for 20 years. And after exhaustively researching bats and spiders for several Halloween-themed lessons, Gardner joined BCI, and came to aspire to volunteer for the organization.
Now retired after 36 years, she’s far from finished teaching. “BCI is the holy grail of bats,” laughs Gardner, who started spending weekend evenings at the Congress Avenue Bridge. “The bridge is a kind of educational nirvana. People can come and see one of nature’s true wonders, and volunteers get to be hands-on and talk to people who want to learn.”
The greater awareness she and other volunteers bring to people helps make connections she feels are often lacking today. Though the myriad devices of modern life open windows into nature, they are mere introductions, she asserts.
“So many people are so cut off from the natural world,” Gardner says. “We’re stuck in our homes with our screens, and you can’t experience the world through a screen that well. You have to get out and see it. As volunteers, we can help make people aware of what’s going on and bring awareness to bats.”
Bracken Cave volunteer since 2012
Having volunteered at the San Antonio Zoo from the time she was in 8th grade, Sarah Gorton has learned to snag the attention of passersby with occasionally gruesome facts: “Did you know that if your hands were like bat wings, your fingers would be three to four meters long?” she’d ask unsuspecting visitors. “Or that if you ate the same as a bat eats every night, it would be like eating 30 to 60 large pizzas?”
Now a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Gorton still volunteers at the zoo, but relays what she absorbs as a Bracken Cave volunteer back to zoo visitors.
“When I go to the cave, I learn something new every single time,” Gorton says. “Volunteering doesn’t have to be physically doing something. It can be as simple as talking to people. At the zoo, I’m constantly telling people to go check out Bracken.”
Initially thinking she might want to study zoology, she is now pursuing communications after realizing how engaged people become when they’re not aware they’re actively learning something new.
“I love informal learning, when people don’t realize they’re learning,” she says. “If you show your heart, that reflects on whatever cause you’re supporting. Sometimes sheer enthusiasm is enough to convince people.”
Crave the Cave?
The Bracken Cave 2016 BCI Member Night schedule will be announced April 1. For more updates, sign up for BCI’s Bat Chat e-newsletter at batcon.org/getnewsletter or go to batcon.org/bracken.