Letter From Austin
City Embraces the Bats Who Came Home to Roost
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page A03
Steve Huey is a man with a caricature of a bat on his business card. He has specially designed Beanie Baby bats to sell, and he offers a big bat deal: Stay overnight in his hotel, and a portion of the room rate goes to bat conservation, earning the guest an official bat adoption certificate.
Around here, no one thinks that's weird.
Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America, and most locals -- along with hordes of tourists -- love the tiny furry critters, all 1.5 million that roost under a downtown bridge and fly out nightly between April and October to forage for insects. They do it in front of an audience of hundreds.
"It's like a rite of passage: If you're in Austin, you have to see the bats," said Huey, sales director for the Radisson Hotel and Suites, located at the foot of the Congress Avenue Bridge, which is home to the bats.
"It's like going to San Antonio and seeing the Alamo -- no disrespect to the Alamo," he said.
Nightly, the spectators arrive as the sun begins to wane in the west, lawn chairs and blankets in tow, picnics packed and cameras in hand. The lowly bat may be the most hated and feared mammal in some parts, but not here. This is, as many like to say, the most progressive, anything-goes city in Texas.
"It's a very cool thing," said Craig Saper, who on this warm evening came to watch the bats wearing a bright blue velveteen Austin Powers suit replete with white ruffled shirt, oversize glasses and a fake set of bad front teeth. He and his friends are videotaping the bats for a promotional film they will show next month to high school athletes about local "hot spots."
"It makes Austin unique," he said.
It also makes Austin money -- an estimated $8 million annually from the 100,000 visitors who come to view the bats each season, say tourism and bat conservation officials.
Need a hotel? Check into the Radisson (look for the airport shuttle with a bat painted on the side) and get a free upgrade with the special bat conservation package. Or try the Four Seasons with its second-floor three-bedroom Congressional Suite, which has the special bat-viewing balcony. Need a burger, a beer and a view of the bats? Try the Town Lake T.G.I. Friday's. How about some Bordeaux with your bats instead? Go to the swanky Shoreline Grill next door. Better yet, some Batinis and bats? That's at the Hyatt Regency on the south side of the bridge.
Just blocks from the bats' roost, the Bitter End Brewery makes Bat City Lager (its second-most-popular brew), and along the bridge, hawkers sell bat T-shirts and bat glow sticks, next to the bat experts who answer tourists' questions. There is a Bat Hotline to call for nightly bat flight times, and bat cruise boats that traverse Town Lake and wait underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge just as the mammals fly out. There is the specially commissioned public art purple bat sculpture ("Night Wing") on Congress Avenue, and the reports by local television meteorologists, who track not only the weather, but also the nightly bat flight whenever it makes the Doppler radar.
When a minor league hockey team came to Austin in 1996, it considered, but rejected, typical Texas monikers such as the Outlaws, Rough Riders or Rattlers because it wanted a name with "a distinctly Austin feel," team spokesman Glen Norman said. It picked the Austin Ice Bats, of course.
"We love our bats," said Eileen Reid-Buesing, spokeswoman for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
People line Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk to watch 1.5 million bats emerge -- an event repeated nightly from April to October.
(Kelly West -- Austin American-statesman)