No, Bats Aren’t Scary: Five Questions for Tessa Collins

An illustration of two bats flying at dusk

What’s it like to be a bat? That question is at the heart of a well-known 1974 essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel writes: “Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.” But for other people, bats are not aliens, but rather a very familiar kind of life.

Philosophers of consciousness aren’t the only people who try to understand bats’ wild lives. Wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists have another perspective on the lives of bats, one grounded in firsthand knowledge about the challenges facing bat colonies today.

I spoke with wildlife rehabilitator Tessa Collins in October 2019 about her work at the Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center. We discussed combating misconceptions about bats involving hair and Halloween, understanding the impact of a warming climate on bats, dealing with the spread of a deadly disease decimating bat colonies, and engaging the public through bat citizen science projects.

1. Bats are often associated with Halloween. Is that accurate? Is this their season, so to speak? Is there a particular time of year people should be paying attention to the bats in their lives?
Halloween is actually not bat season. Right now, all of the migratory bats are getting the heck out of colder regions like Wisconsin. All of the hibernating bats are hiding away and settling in. When people are most likely to find bats out and about, or in their houses, is August, because that’s when the maternal baby-rearing colonies are breaking up. Babies are all raised, and they’re going off to explore for the first time, and mothers are ready to move on for the year. So, in August, bats go out into the world.

An illustration of a bat flying over red barns

A pipistrelle bat. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

2. Some people are scared of bats. Are they scary? What are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about bats?
There are many misconceptions about bats, especially related to being weird and creepy. At the Wildlife Center, we get all these people who think that bats are going to come after them and get in their hair. That’s not a reality. They’re just like any other wild mammal. They are more scared of us than we are of them. If they end up in your home, they are in an absolute panic trying to find somewhere to be away from the scary, giant human they suddenly found themselves near and find their safe, dark place again.

The other misconception we hear about bats a lot is about their diet. We have eight species of bats here in Wisconsin, and they all eat insects: moths, mosquitoes, all of those things you don’t like in your yard. Bats in Wisconsin don’t eat blood or fruit, just insects (which is a huge help to people who like being outside or like having their gardens grow). They are fantastic pest control.

It is definitely beneficial to have bats in our environment. It’s just like spiders. I don’t understand why people are so determined that bats and spiders cannot be around. They have no interest at all in people and would just like somewhere safe to sleep and some mosquitoes to eat.

3. What does being a bat rehabber involve?
One of the less fun aspects of being a bat rehabber is that we do have white-nose syndrome here in Wisconsin, which is a fungus that affects bats and their hibernation. So, we need to be really very careful that that does not contaminate us, our building, or anything that could spread it to another bat. Every time we get a bat in, it’s full quarantine: three sets of gloves, a gown, booties when we go in the bat room, spraying everything it touches with disinfectant as it moves in or out of the area around our bats.

A photograph of a bat wrapped in a towel eating mealworms from a dish

A big brown bat eats mealworms from a dish. Photo courtesy of the Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center.

Once it gets cold, once we start seeing frost, bats should be hibernating. So, if someone finds them, the bats are stuck here until spring happens. We have to keep them. In the wild, they would be catching insects on the wing. They’re incredible little acrobats. They catch food while flying and just keep flying. That’s not quite an option here at the Wildlife Center. We don’t have enough space and enough flying insects to make that practical.

So, when they get here we teach them how to eat out of a dish. We put mealworms in a dish and tweezer feed them until they figure it out. One of the very best things is when they figure it out. They just seem so happy, like oh my gosh I am surrounded by this dish of food and it is the best thing. We actually have trouble with bats that we keep all winter getting too fat, because they like the mealworms too much. We have to put them on a diet so that they can fly well in the spring.

Since they are here all winter, we do eventually try to hibernate them once they have been here for 30 days, as long as they look good and healthy, and they don’t need extra time to heal from injuries or anything. We have a colder room—not like outside cold, but colder— where they hibernate, and we feed them and water them once a week. They’re really much less maintenance that way and it is more natural for them. And they stay with us until spring. We release a little over a hundred bats every year in April and May.

4. What is it like to be a bat? What are some of the biggest challenges facing bats right now?
I think it would be a great deal to be a bat, actually. You know, you get to hibernate all winter. That seems like a great strategy in Wisconsin. It would be nice. But, right now, those bats who are trying to happily hibernate are struggling with white-nose syndrome. It was first discovered in the US in 2006 which—in the grand scheme of things—is brand new. It has decimated bat populations here in the US in a way that wasn’t seen in Europe and Asia. So, we are still trying to wrap our heads around the impact of this disease.

A photograph of a bat with a white nose being held by gloved hands

A little brown bat with symptoms typical of white-nose syndrome. Photo by Steve Taylor, University of Illinois, 2013.

But what it means for an individual bat is that this fungus starts to grow on their nose, head, and wings and irritates them during hibernation. They keep getting woken up to try to free themselves of this fungus, scratching. They’re disturbed. Eventually they run through their energy reserves before spring arrives, which is often deadly to them. This fungus is decimating thousands of bat colonies across the eastern US. Researchers are all over it right now trying to stop the spread, trying to limit its effects.

Here at the Wildlife Center, we have admitted a couple bats who we believe had the fungus. We can’t do a genuine test. What we do is UV light screening. Fungal spores on the bat will fluoresce orange under a UV light, which indicates the fungus is probably present. There is no treatment other than supportive care right now. So, when we get those bats, they are on extra quarantine on top of the usual quarantine, and we provide supportive care for them.

It is definitely beneficial to have bats in our environment.

White-nose syndrome is not the only thing affecting our bats. They also struggle in a changing climate. Do they have to migrate at a different time of year? Do they have to find a new place to hibernate that is different than where they did because their place has warmed? They’re also adjusting to human habitation. Some species or individuals seem to be learning to hibernate in attics. Whether that is a good evolutionary change, that depends. There are a lot of positives and negatives to moving from caves and trees to attics.

And our insect populations change with climate change as well. Bats need to be able to find enough food, which can be harder as humans are using more pesticides and trying more vigorously to remove insects from our spheres of life. We might be removing a food source for bats as well.

5. For people out there who want to get more involved with bats, what can they do?
They should look into their local organizations. There are rehabilitation centers across the country, and the world, who work to help local injured and orphaned animals, including bats. Places like that and us always need more volunteers. It is so helpful to have people willing to donate their time, to support these bats that we need to keep until they are healthy and can return to their local environment.

A photograph of a small red bat being held by gloved hands

An eastern red bat. Photo courtesy of the Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center.

You can also look for monitoring groups. I know the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a citizen science project, monitoring bat calls to help identify the sounds that they hear. They have microphones to pick up the really high-pitched patterns of calls. Looking at those sound waves, with a field guide, you can tell whether that sound is coming from a big brown bat or a long-eared bat.

Another way to help bats is knowing what to do should you find one in your house, or your friend’s house, or your garage. What happens when you see a bat? It depends a little state by state as to where they can go (if rehabilitators can take them or not). But when you do find a bat, it is very important to safely remove it back out into the world. We have a PDF on our website. Other organizations who work with bats will definitely have the same. These will advise you on how to put a box over it and then slide the bat in, like you would a spider and a cup, without touching it. Get the bat well-contained, and return it to the environment. You can take it back outside, as long as the bat seems bright and it is warm weather, so there are still insects about. Once it gets cold, taking bats back outside could be dangerous for them. They should have been hibernating in the first place, and there is no food source for them. So, then it would be better to contact your local rehabilitator.

Featured image: C.E. Swan’s illustration of a bat on the wing in a 1909 book, The Wild Beasts of the World, available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Tessa Collins is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center, helping to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. After receiving a degree in biology from University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and completing three internships in related fields, Tessa is honored to work with an amazing team of staff and volunteers to return Wisconsin native animals to their environments. Contact.

Laura Perry is Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include animal studies and the public humanities. She is also an organizer of the interdisciplinary research group Environmental Justice in Multispecies WorldsTwitterContact.