I’m a very lucky person because I get to be a zookeeper! The most rewarding thing about my career is waking up in the morning and knowing that I have an important job to do – a job that can make the world a better place. I get to spend time with animals, learn about them, and hopefully help others learn, too. Bats are one of my very favorite animals to talk about. In fact, you can come learn about bats every day at the zoo during our 10:30 Bat Chat! There are so many myths and so much fear and misinformation surrounding bats that I consider it a special honor to work with them and help people understand them better.
But even when you have the best job in the world you need a vacation sometimes. You would think that working day in and day out with the hundreds of animals in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo I might want a break from fur, feathers, and talons, but nope! When I take a trip I want to see lots of animals. So recently, my husband and I decided to visit Costa Rica.
Our first day there we got to our resort and starting exploring. We happened upon a quiet, dark building were a young couple was playing a game of pool. We asked them what else was in the building. They said, not much, but…
“Don’t go in the women’s bathroom!” the young woman warned me. “There’s a BAT in there!”
Needless to say my husband and I ran…but not in the direction the woman expected. When we reached the empty bathroom we slowed down and walked quietly inside. Sure enough, hanging from the ceiling was a small, brown bat, looking down at me with a very familiar face!
“It’s a Carollia!” I said. “A Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat like I take care of at the zoo!”
I had traveled over a thousand miles and the first animal that I saw was one that I spend hours with every week at the zoo – I take care of around 70 of them actually – and it was magical. I appreciated its warm, alert brown eyes, its constantly wiggling little ears, and its turned-up, leaf-shaped nose like I was seeing it all for the first time.
I inched closer until the bat finally got frightened and flew over our heads and out the door of the bathroom. We heard the woman outside start screaming. She screamed and screamed and screamed! When she finished she stuck her head in the bathroom, embarrassed.
“You guys didn’t scream,” she said.
As we walked away my husband said, “It’s so weird that she would react that way to such a tiny animal. It didn’t want anything to do with us. It wouldn’t let us get anywhere near it! And that woman screamed like she was being chased by a tiger!”
“Yeah,” I replied, “And the funny thing is, the bat was just trying to get away, so really, she wasn’t even being chased by a bat!”
Now, there are probably some of you out there who completely understand the woman’s reaction. It’s easy to let the big, scary idea of an animal that we learn from TV and movies and countless images get in the way of seeing something for what it is – in this case a very small, very shy animal. It can be hard for those of us who work with animals to understand how something we regard with so much excitement and awe could possibly be a source of fear, or worse, disgust for others.
A lot of people believe that every single bat has rabies, and it’s true that rabies is a scary, scary disease. If you see a bat that’s on the ground or out during the daytime, there is definitely something wrong. Bats are wonderful to watch but you should never touch a bat under any circumstances! You can check out this website for more information about wildlife and rabies and how to stay safe!
All that being said, if you see a bat flying around at night doing normal bat things there is almost no chance that animal is sick, and even less chance it’s going to get anywhere near you!
For some reason, people also have the crazy idea that bats want to get in your hair. That’s an odd one. I’ve had the occasional bat accidentally land on me while I was cleaning their exhibit, but they never stay long and they don’t seem to have any interest in re-styling my ponytail. Some people even believe that bats will turn into vampires. It goes to show you how silly we can be when we let ourselves be afraid of something unknown. In reality, unless you’re an insect or a piece of fruit, there’s nothing frightening about bats.
When you take the time to learn about bats you start to see only the cool things, the ways in which bats are both incredibly strange and remarkably similar to us at the same time. The skeletal structure of a bat looks surprisingly like ours with hand and fingers bones stretched out into the amazing wings that make them the only flying mammal. Bats do so many of the same things we do! They eat food and try to stay safe, they have live birth and nurse their young. But they do it all upside down!
They have all these special adaptations because they have important jobs to do, too. Whether it’s pollinating flowers so that plants can reproduce, eating mosquitoes and crop pests like they do in our own backyard here in Houston, spreading seeds around like the Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat, or helping researchers find ways to treat heart attack victims like the much maligned vampire bats, bats all have an important job to do – a job that makes the world better. A job we can’t afford for them to take a vacation from.
I really am a very lucky person. I get to take cool trips. I have a husband who will run into the lady’s room to look at a bat with me. In Costa Rica I got to see bats swirling around a waterfall deep in the jungle. I got to see bats catching fish in the ocean. And when I came home I got to go back to my important job where every day I get to watch bats lick nectar with a tongue that’s as long as their bodies and hang from the ceiling to take a bath just like a tiny, upside-down kitty cat.
I hope the next time you see a bat, whether it’s the first bat you’ve ever come across or your millionth, that you’ll think about the important job it’s busy doing and you’ll look at it like you’re seeing it for the first time. I hope you’ll think about how lucky you are – how lucky we all are! – to share the world with such strange and special creatures. And most of all I hope you’ll realize that understanding bats is an important job that YOU could do.