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Why Texans Dove Into Harvey’s Toxic Floodwaters To Rescue Bats Barehanded

To the people who love them, Houston’s bats aren’t scary — they’re bug-eating “dragons” that keep our ecosystem (and economy) afloat.

I’m on the line with Erica Quinzel, lead animal care specialist for Bat World Sanctuary, as she climbs over a rocky incline to check a bridge in downtown Houston for surviving or injured bats. “Unfortunately it's not looking good here,” she says, out of breath and exhausted after days of scouring the flooded city for ailing wildlife. It’s been a week since Harvey first made landfall in Texas, and Quinzel has spent much of that time surveying damage and caring for the world’s only flying mammals. “There’s a ton of bats dead on the floor,” she says. The disappointment in her voice is palpable. “I don’t hear any chirping, so I’m actually worried that this colony got killed off completely.”

Hurricane Harvey has been called the worst disaster in the history of Texas, and it’s expected to be one of America’s most expensive as well, as Houston and surrounding areas grapple with widespread destruction. But when catastrophe hits, heroic acts tend to follow, and throughout the storm, locals have gone above and beyond to aid each other — including the area’s dogs and cats, trapped deer, and, yes, bats.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"][Bats] are really sweet, despite whatever you might hear. They're amazing parents.[/quote]

Trapped by furious winds and rain, bats have been drowning in their roosts under bridges or displaced from their colonies and forced to settle on nearby buildings, making them vulnerable to weather and predators. They may not be conventionally cuddly — many people associate these creatures with vampirism, rabies, or at best, Bruce Wayne — but bats still enjoy a human fan base eager to help. A video taken by a local CBS journalist shows a woman identified as Alicia Plunkett vaulting over the edge of the Waugh Drive Bridge, a Houston landmark where tourists and locals gather to watch the city’s largest bat colony emerge at sunset. Plunkett can be seen scooping up little furry critters from the hazardous waters barehanded. In another popular clip, we see a group collecting wriggling bats in a clear tub.

“The second people found out I was here, I received so many messages from people willing to go gather bats,” says Quinzel. She’s spent the week with bat lovers and other wildlife enthusiasts operating a kind of mobile bat triage center out of a truck. Quinzel has been traversing the city in the days after the hurricane, hunting for beleaguered bats to save; after tending to their injuries and rehydrating the animals, she releases them. She claims to have saved hundreds of bats this week alone.

Quinzel watches over the bats through their healing process, waiting for them to wake up so she can feed them a few drops of food. Most volunteers have no background in bat rescue, so she’s given them a (very) brief tutorial on bat handling safety, then she tells them, “Find any — any — bats that are still breathing and bring them to me.”

Left: Quinzel's mobile bat triage center. Right: Volunteers care for injured bats after the hurricane.

Bats Give Back

If taking time during a crisis to save animals often regarded as pests mystifies you, Quinzel wants to set the record straight. “[Bats] are really sweet, despite whatever you might hear,” she tells me. “They’re amazing parents. They’re actually really caring animals.” Above all, she says, “Bats are essential to our ecosystem.”

There are fruit-eating bats, for example, that drop seed-filled excrement, helping grow forests and resurrect damaged landscapes. But in the Lone Star State, the nonvegetarian bats really pay off, both ecologically and economically. They gobble up insects at an astounding rate, sucking down as much as three-quarters of their body weight in moths, beetles, and other creepy-crawlies every night — bugs that would otherwise be munching on crops, biting people, or getting stuck in our hair. A 2011 study estimated this bat-driven pest control to be worth billions of dollars per year to American agriculture. The 250,000 bats at Houston’s Waugh Bridge colony consume more than two tons of insects on a daily basis.

“The economics of bats and agriculture are pretty significant here in Texas,” says Mylea Bayless, the senior director of network and partnerships at Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit based out of Austin, Texas (nicknamed “Bat City”) and Washington, D.C.

Though bats are found all over the globe, Texas really is a special place for the winged creatures, home to 33 bat species and the world’s largest bat colony; Bracken Cave, outside of San Antonio, houses 15 to 20 million bats. “Texas is the state with the largest number of bat species in the U.S.,” says Bayless. “And one of our most common species is the Mexican free-tailed bat, which is a moth-eating specialist. A lot of those moths are critical agricultural pests to our corn and cotton crops, which are big economic drivers in Texas.”

In 2006, BCI calculated that bat-related benefits for south central Texas cotton farmers alone surpassed $740,000 in that year. Bats also have a reputation as mosquito-killers, and because floods often mean a boom in their numbers (many mosquitoes lay eggs on standing water), several recent articles have suggested bats will help stem the spread of diseases like Zika and West Nile carried by mosquitoes. Projects from Miami to Long Island have even tried to use bats as a mosquito countermeasure.

Yet despite the fact that “bats eating mosquitoes” has become conventional wisdom, the assertion is actually a matter of considerable dispute.

Left: Catastrophic losses beneath Congress Street Bridge. Right: A few of the bats rescued by Quinzel's team.

Bats, The Anti-Heroes

Bayless and other experts contacted for this story all told me that bats’ appetites for mosquitoes have been greatly overstated. The flying mammals are willing to eat mosquitoes, but actually prefer prey with a little more meat on the thorax, like moths or wasps.

“Yes, we’re going to see a boom in mosquito population. But bats are just not going to be one of the more effective means of mosquito control,” says Kelly Norrid, urban wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. I speak with Norrid on his first day back in his office since the storm hit; he lives in Houston, but was lucky because his home didn’t flood. His Parks and Wildlife voicemail is full and he is dreading listening through the backlog of calls.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]People, rather than animals, ‘are really what the department has been focused on.’[/quote]

Before the storm, Parks and Wildlife was given permission by Governor Greg Abbott to turn its resources and manpower to assisting with the rescue and evacuation of Houstonians. Evacuees were allowed to camp free in the state parks that stayed open. Given the level of emergency, people, rather than animals, “are really what the department has been focused on, of course,” says Norrid, who has seen the videos of citizens scooping up Waugh Bridge bats. Although he makes clear that he applauds their efforts, “It’s really something we can’t recommend. We can’t tell people to go out and pick up wildlife unless they’re properly trained. Bats especially.”

Amanda Lollar, founder of Bat World Sanctuary, who trained Quinzel and equipped her for the post-Harvey rescue mission, explains that though most bats are safe to be around, like other wildlife, they can contract rabies. Most people who work with bats are vaccinated against rabies, but when it comes to the general public, “If someone finds a bat that's clearly in trouble, it’s important they not handle it with bare hands. Use a cloth, a glove, a T-shirt, anything.” Lollar also points out that bats are much more delicate than many people assume and can easily be injured by accident.

Peekaboo, a kind of mascot for Bat World Sanctuary, "sees a light at the end of the tunnel" after Harvey, according to the organization.

For the Love of Bats

But Texas’s bat devotees see beyond the health risks and stereotypes associated with these winged mammals. “People in Houston, Austin, and towns that have big colonies … understand the importance of [bats],” says Quinzel. Personally, she says, “I loved bats as a kid because I loved dragons. I loved the thought of something mysterious like that… I wanted to be the one who saved them.”

She tells me about the first night in Texas, when she found just one bat with a broken wing that wasn’t able to fly. “We kept him again for another night, and we tried again the next night. He just took so many hits. Whenever you look at these bats, and they have so many scars ... you see that they've survived so much. It's so sad to see it be something like dehydration that kills them.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I loved bats as a kid because I loved dragons. I loved the thought of something mysterious like that… I wanted to be the one who saved them.[/quote]

But at least for now, Quinzel says the skies are clear in Houston. It’s a sunny and humid afternoon. “Each day we check back on the Waugh Bridge, and the water's gone down further and further. … I really stressed about releasing the bats there on the first day.” She says the water’s recession is a relief and makes her feel more confident about the colony’s future.

“It really remains to be seen how many bats are going to be lost,” says Norrid. “Houston has about 800 miles of bayous, creeks, and streams that crisscross through Harris County. Right now we know of about 30 bridges in the greater Houston area that are home to colonies of free-tailed bats,” and each will need to be surveyed individually. Though he says the region will wrestle with Harvey’s long-term environmental effects for years, Norrid is confident that most of Houston’s bat colonies will bounce back.

The situation is already looking promising: In a Sept. 1 email, Cullen Geiselman, board chair of BCI and Houston resident, writes, “I went by the Waugh Bridge this afternoon and heard some bats in the crevices and saw fresh guano on the ground.”

The night after speaking by phone, Norrid texts me with good news too, forwarding a message from a friend: “Just drove by the Waugh Bridge and the bats are coming out by the thousands” — punctuated with an upside-down bat emoji.

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