I love bats. Any of you who know me will be aware that I’ve a bat or two in care at any given time in the summer months. I coordinate the bat care network for Birmingham and the Black Country, and sit on the committee of our local bat group, BrumBats; and I’m also a Voluntary Bat Warden / Roost Visitor for Natural England, which its fair to say is the least pressing of the three roles, as we don’t tend to get too many roost visit calls in any given year, whereas sick, injured or orphaned bats seem to drop from the skies from April to September each year.
This evening, however, I actually had a roost visit in Stafford. I must confess that I didn’t really feel like an hour’s drive each way on Easter Sunday, but I’m very glad that I did, not the least because it has me thinking about why people fear bats.
Known as ‘Chiroptophobia’ (bats are in the order Chiroptera – which, literally, means ‘hand wing’), the fear of bats is not a new phenomenon. The title of this post is a stanza from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in which Titania, queen of the fairies, is entreating the wild creatures of the night to stay away from her. If only the lady whose house I visited today had the ability to simply charm the bats away, like the pied piper, I am sure she would have.
Now, I’m no stranger to phobias (I once went to an arachnophobia workshop at Dudley Zoo – the best £20 I’ve ever spent!), but as someone who spends so much time nursing the little fuzzballs back to health – I have trouble reconciling the animal with the ‘creature’ if you know what I mean.
Vampire bats (only 3 of approximately 1,000 bat species on the planet) are maligned above all other bats for what is perceived to be a ‘loathsome’ practice of feeding on the blood of other animals. Just about every bat walk I lead ends up in the ‘do they drink your blood’ conversation, which I don’t mind because it gives me the opportunity to do a little batty P.R. work:
How is it that we all (particularly children) love lions, tigers, dinosaurs, killer whales and any number of apex predators, whose every meal takes the life of another creature, yet we cast scorn on a creature who, rather than killing, simply takes some blood – a substance which the host has in ample supply, by a procedure which is painless – we’re not talking about chewing here, just licking up blood after a bite. Take a look at this photo to the right. I know I’m a bit biased but that is a seriously impressive, specialist creature! See the groove in his lower lip? What better adaptation for an animal that needs to lap up food quickly and regularly! (I have to go a bit girly here and also say HOW SERIOUSLY CUTE THIS BAT IS!)
But it’s not just the vampire thing that freaks people out – I’m convinced that most chiroptophobes, given a close encounter with a live bat, up close, would see that they’re warm, fuzzy, social, intelligent and frankly down right adorable creatures – not scaly, ‘leathern wing-ed’ creeeaturesoftheniiiight.
No doubt that the media and popular culture is to blame for much of our misinformation about bats, and anthropologically speaking I have no doubt that it once made sense to mistrust ANY nocturnal wildlife given the danger inherent in tribal living in a landscape still full of predators like wolves.
So CULTURALLY, we have been programmed since childhood by folklore and by hollywood that bats are scary, insidious, creepy, vile creatures that can harm us and that, at best, are the familiars of vampires and evil spirits. But surely if we can outgrow our insistence that the tooth fairy is real, then we can shake off the other misguided trappings of youth?