For bats, Texas woman is a hero

By Pat Pape
Saturday, September 11, 2010

FORT WORTH -- Dottie Hyatt has 36 bats living in her Keller, Tex., home, but she's not calling an exterminator. Hyatt is the one-woman bat-rescue team of Bat World Lone Star, one of 20 rescue centers around the country associated with the Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, Tex.

When an injured bat is discovered in North Texas, Hyatt's home is often where it ends up. There, it is rehydrated; medicated; nurtured; given a name such as Alfie, Wilbur, Jolene or Cal; and, hopefully, returned to the great outdoors. If the bat can't live on its own, it becomes a permanent resident of the Bat World Sanctuary.

A former Floridian and IT project manager, Hyatt has been active in wildlife rescue most of her life, helping rehabilitate creatures from rabbits to manatees. About 12 years ago, at a workshop conducted by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, she heard a lecture on bats. "I learned that bats are clean, intelligent, affectionate and endangered," she said.

A few months later, her cat delivered an injured bat to her house, and that was the start of an intense commitment to the nocturnal fliers. Of the nation's 5,000 certified wildlife rehabilitators, only 200 are bat specialists.

Thanks to Hollywood, bats have been the villains of scary movies, swooping in to attack victims or get tangled in their hair. Some people think bats are a type of rodent or bird. Others believe they are blind and carry a host of diseases, including the deadly rabies virus. All of these perceptions are false.

"Less than one-half of 1 percent of bats contract rabies," Hyatt said. "They're mammals just like us, and all mammals can contract rabies."

In truth, bats are key players in a healthy environment, she said. They pollinate many plants -- and if you love margaritas, you should love bats because they pollinate 98 percent of all agave plants, the source of tequila.

Their immense appetite for flying bugs helps control crop-destroyers such as the corn-borer moth, the nation's second-most destructive insect, which defies its name by noshing on eggplants, apples, potatoes and many other crops besides corn. Another delicacy for bats is the mosquito, which can carry the West Nile virus.

"The average bat gobbles 3,000 to 5,000 insects every night," Hyatt said. "A lactating female eats 10,000 to 12,000 nightly. Bats save us billions -- not millions -- of dollars in crops each year."

Despite the negative publicity they've received, bats are cute, Hyatt added. They purr when they're happy and have almost no odor. They communicate when they are hungry or want attention, using squeaks and clicks in various tones to express their needs and opinions.

A spreading threat

Four years ago in a cave west of Albany, N.Y., an explorer photographed hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their faces. He also noticed several dead bats in the area. Within a year, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation became aware of hundreds of dead bats, and in 2007, biologists announced that white-nose syndrome, a deadly European disease, had crossed the Atlantic. So far, millions of bats in the Northeast have died, and white-nose syndrome has been reported as far west as Oklahoma.

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