The Mexican Free-tailed bat is gray and brown, has massive, vein-lined ears, a pig-like snout and patchy hair under its tiny, wrinkled mouth. One would speculate that only this bat’s mother could love him.
But that speculation – like many others about bats – is a myth. Corky Quirk, founder of NorCal Bats, happens to find the creatures quite adorable.
Quirk has made a significant effort to teach the Northern California community about the little fore-limbed mammals, while also rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing them to their respective environments. She currently lives in Davis, but travels throughout California to wherever a bat is in need in her “bat mobile“- but instead of sporting heavy armor and atomic batteries, Quirk transports tiny bats to safety.
The most common instance where Quirk’s services are needed is when a person finds a bat in their home and he or she worries that the bat may bite.
“I can only think of one incident where the person [said] that he’d been bit and the bat tested positive for rabies,” Quirk said. “I’d say most people are aware that they need to be careful. If the person is afraid but yet they want to help the bat, I’ll ask them to put a box over the bat to keep everyone safe.“
One of the most important pieces of advice Quirk, or anyone working with bats, gives to those who call is to never touch the bat with bare hands. Though bats in California are not interested in human flesh – they only feed on insects – if they feel threatened, they will bite. Since rabies is transmitted through saliva, there is a possibility that the bat can pass along the virus.
“The only way to test it is to test the brain and you have to put them to sleep,” she said. “That’s why I encourage people to wear gloves or use tools.“
But that’s another myth Quirk and NorCal Bats work to dispel – not all bats have rabies, and the ones that do don’t necessarily show it. They don’t foam at the mouth or act hysterically. According to Bat Conservation International, bat rabies only account for about one death per year in the U.S., so a person runs a greater risk of getting killed by a dog.
The fact that bats can carry rabies is the reason why Quirk’s services are so unique. Next to NorCal Bats, there is only one other organization in California that will care for bats because many do not want to run the risks associated with rabies.
“Nine times out of 10, if a bat is down, it has rabies,” said Christina Palmar-Holtry, at the Veterinary Science Teaching Hospital. “So we don’t see many here, and if we do they usually have to be euthanized for rabies testing.“
The second organization that assists with injured bats is Flying Mammal Rescue, located in Sacramento.
“With just Corky and me sometimes we get overrun,” said Fran Zitano, founder of Flying Mammal Rescue. “It would be nice if wildlife rescue groups would take bats in because they are endangered and somebody really needs to take care of them.“
Bats play a vital role in the world’s ecosystem. Although a few species feed on fruit and meat, all California bats primarily feed on insects – millions of insects.
They save farmers thousands on pesticides and minimize mosquitoes in the environment. They eat far more insects than any birds and a pregnant bat will eat the equivalent of its own weight, Quirk said.
All those interviewed said that bats are not pests – they are in fact quite fascinating creatures. They hunt almost purely based on echolocation in the night; they travel up to 50 miles away from their nest to hunt; they can live up to 30 years; a female bat will never leave her colony; a mother bat will adopt an injured baby bat if that baby bat’s mother is not present, according to Quirk.
These are the kinds of things Quirk tells almost anyone who will listen. One of NorCal Bats‘ most ardent tasks is education and Quirk delivers presentations to classrooms, wildlife groups and children. This year, she even brought a few of her “teaching” bats to a Batman-themed birthday party. The youngsters were in the mood for a bat lesson, and she was glad to deliver.
“It was impressive that the parents and the kids wanted to do something that was educational,” Quirk said. “That’s when I feel like I’m really making a difference.“
For more information visit norcalbats.org.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org