By his colleagues’ accounts, Fran Hutchins is the kind of guy who dependably shows up and helps out. Before he …
By his colleagues’ accounts, Fran Hutchins is the kind of guy who dependably shows up and helps out. Before he was hired as the Director of Bracken Cave Preserve, Hutchins showed up with his local cave-exploring club to mow the lawn around the visitor areas of Bracken Cave Preserve and to guide summertime visitors through the astounding experience of witnessing millions of bats rise and swirl upwards from Bracken Cave into the night sky in search of their nightly meal.
For nearly 15 years working for Bat Conservation International, Hutchins has been given the responsibility of managing Bracken Cave Preserve – home to 20 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), the world’s largest maternity colony of bats – and the nearly 1,500-acre rugged preserve in central Texas which surrounds the cave.
Seeing that the migratory bat colony safely roosts in the cave every spring to give birth to millions of pups is Hutchins’ first and foremost concern. Protecting the Preserve by forming strong relationships with neighboring residents is also his high priority. So, two months ago on a holiday weekend, it wasn’t out of character to find Hutchins rappelling 75 feet down a steep cliff, harnessed above a frothing flash-flooded area, to rescue a gaunt and shivering dog.
How Jackson, a chocolate Labrador retriever, and his inseparable companion Missy, a golden Lab, disappeared and were eventually found and rescued requires some speculation. During a thunderous Texas storm, the dogs had fled into the night. For nearly two weeks, despite an organized search, the dogs had not been found. Hutchins and the dogs’ owner, Robert Rowe, figure the dogs were terrified and frantic. In the darkness of the storm, always at each other’s side, the dogs must have run right off the cliff. Thankfully, a narrow ledge midway down stopped the dogs from falling at least 150 feet to an outcome of serious injuries, or worse.
Likely the dogs spent those two weeks on that ledge, without food and with minimal pooled water from rainstorms. Then another massive storm rolled in, dumping enough water to create a flash flood about 15 feet wide and perhaps 15 feet deep at the base of the cliff, in what normally is a dry wash. Hutchins speculates that Missy, scared and starved, leapt into the swift water below and made her way to the other side to show up on the porch of a home just outside the preserve.
United with Missy, the dogs’ owner went looking for Jackson again. High above the water on the cliff, Jackson was spotted, a mere speck but alive. That’s when Hutchins was called.
Hutchins solicited three of his climbing and caving buddies to help with the rescue. From the top of the cliff, he rappelled down and saw Jackson “in really bad shape.” The dog moved toward him, crawling on his belly. It was gratifying, he says, to get Jackson harnessed and hoisted to safety, food, warmth, and his owner.
Jackson wasn’t Hutchins’ first rescue of a pet or farm animal in Bracken Cave Preserve, although the rescues are usually not as dramatic. Farms and new neighborhoods border several parts of the Preserve.
“It’s important for us to build good relationships with our neighbors,” says Hutchins. “We’re happy to help when we can. Most of our neighbors understand the importance of bats and Bracken Cave. Many of our neighbors, in fact, volunteer in welcoming visitors and maintaining the Preserve’s trails.”
For more information on Bracken Cave Preserve, CLICK HERE.