Conservancy hoping to change bat misconceptions


Island Flying Fox Bats rest during the 9th Annual Florida Bat festival at the Lubee Bat Conservancy on Oct. 26.

Elise Giordano/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, November 15, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.

They found her in a crate outside the gate of the Lubee Bat Conservancy with a note that read “Please take care of me.''

Staffers took in the abandoned fruit bat, named her Kuri and gave her a new home where she has lived since that day 12 years ago.

Kuri was lucky, but many of her relatives have not been. Globally, about 25 percent of the known 1,250 bat species are threatened with extinction. The Lubee Bat Conservancy is trying to change that.

Bats have been a part of Brian Pope's career for 17 years, but he also has worked with animals ranging from tarantulas to giraffes. He has been a trainer for komodo dragons, American crocodiles, wildebeests and, of course, bats.

As director of the Lubee Bat Conservancy, he oversees all of the animals and people at the organization's 110-acre ranch at 1309 NW 192nd Ave., about 10 miles north of Gainesville.

The land is home to 212 fruit bats, making it the largest collection of fruit bats in the world. A tortoise and two sugar gliders are residents here, too.

The place used to house other animals, including monkeys, parrots and ostriches. That was when Luis F. Bacardi of the Bacardi rum empire owned it.

The name Lubee is derived from his name. Bacardi founded the organization, which was originally called the Lubee Foundation Inc., in 1989.

Bats, particularly fruit bats, have been part of the Bacardi family since the founders discovered them in the rafters of a distillery in Cuba they bought in the 1860s. They became the inspiration for the Bacardi Rum logo.

One of Bacardi's goals was “to develop special facilities and staff expertise for working on behalf of endangered bats,” according to the spring 1990 issue of BATS Magazine, which is published by Bat Conservation International.

After Bacardi's death on Sept. 12, 1991, the foundation decided to fulfill that goal. It got rid of the other animals and now focuses on bats.

Bacardi left behind an endowment for his foundation, but the nonprofit relies on grants and donations to function. It does not receive any funding from the current Bacardi company.

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Pope shares Bacardi's passion for conservation.

“I think, because if it's done right, it can make a difference,” he said.

In many countries, bats face extinction through hunting and habitat destruction. So, with the help of grants and funding partners, Lubee leads projects to help increase the population in places with endangered bat species.

Repopulating is a long process because bats have a slow reproductive rate, with females giving birth to only one pup a year.

Pope said to save the bats it's important to work with all the groups in the community, including those who hunt bats. This makes some people uncomfortable.

When he told this to a women's group from Gainesville that was visiting the conservancy, their uneasiness was obvious.

“I could see their stomachs turn,” Pope said.

But once he explains why, people are more receptive.

“Hunters are some of the biggest conservationists out there,” he said. “Poachers are the problem. Hunters use (bats) for their family or for their culture, but poachers are the ones that make the money off of it.”

Poachers capitalize on a misinformed population, as many people believe myths about the supposed healing abilities of bats. Researchers say some communities in Indonesia and Malaysia believe eating bats will help their asthma or kidney ailments.

But people in some cultures hunt bats for food, and overhunting causes the bats to become endangered.

So organizations such as the conservancy work to teach these communities to hunt sustainably. Pope said he believes a little education can go a long way.

“You have to leave them with something that is long-lasting,” he said.

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The bats at the Lubee Conservancy like to paint.

“Their favorite color seems to be purple,” Jenna McMichael, a keeper at the conservancy, said.

McMichael, 25, invented a contraption about 2 years ago that allows the bats to be creative. She made it by putting a blank canvas in a box made out chain-wire.

It's is same chain-wire that is used for the bats' cages, because she wanted to “make it as non-scary to the animals as possible.”

She then slides brushes already dipped in paint through holes in the cage. The brushes have fruits such as cantaloupe attached to them to entice the bats to grab them and be artistic.

But McMichael said many times the bats ignore the fruit and just play with the paintbrushes. The results are expressionist pieces of art that Lubee sells to the public for $25. The picture, also, comes with a DVD of the artists at work.

McMichael fell in love with bats when she was volunteering at Lubee in 2009 while she was a student at Santa Fe College's Zoo Animal Technology Program. She said she created this way for bats to paint because the creatures have a really negative image.

“It just gives people a way to relate to bats,” she said.

Some people are surprised to find the bats awake during the day. But not all bats are nocturnal.

These bats like to be awake during the day, especially, because that's when they're fed, Pope said. Bats such as Grace, whose gluttony is apparent in her round figure, rush over to the pieces of cantaloupe, banana and apples that are strung from the top of the cage.

Fruit bats are messy eaters. Grace chomps on the fruit to suck out all the juice and spits the remains on the ground.

Grace is a crowd favorite. She's a Rodriguez fruit bat who is loud, cute and charismatic, Pope said.

She's also very aware of the visitors watching her chow down, because she's not “blind as a bat.” The expression is misleading because many species of bats have excellent vision.

People might think bats are blind because some species use echolocation, a sonar system where bats make high frequency sounds that bounce off objects to navigate at night, Pope said.

Fruit bats do not echolocate. While they can see, “they really don't like to make eye contact,” Pope said.

Other myths about bats Pope would like to dispel: Blood doesn't rush to their heads when they hang upside down, and they are not going to get caught in your hair.

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While overhunting has caused much of the trouble for bat populations overseas, bats in the United States face a different but just as deadly threat.

White-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats across the country, according to a 2012 news release by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was discovered in a cave in New York in 2006 and has since spread to 16 more states.

Researchers believe it came from Europe, where the bats are immune to the fungus that causes the disease.

The fungus affects only bats that go into true hibernation, so it hasn't affected Florida except for populations in the Panhandle.

“It's the same thing as if you think of Native American populations to smallpox,” Pope said. “They had no immunity to it, and it wiped them out.”

The fungus gets into the bats' wing membranes and deteriorates them. But the biggest problem is that it wakes the creatures up at the time of the year when they should be sleeping.

The bats wake up groggy and fly outside their caves, where they just find blankets of snow, and they starve to death

“It's sad because I know where I come from — there's a lot of parks around there, southwestern Pennsylvania — you would always go out at night to see the bats, and there's none,” Pope said. “They're gone. They're completely gone.”

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