Bat Lady’s Message: Create A Bat House!

Article and Photos by Emma Zehner, Branford Eagle
Reprinted with Permission

Emma Zehner Photo

What is intelligent, goofy, and fun to hang out with? According to Gerri Griswold, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, these words best describe a bat.

Griswold, who oftentimes goes by the name “the bat lady,” has been working for 21 years to dispel any other notions: “The more you learn about this animal, the more you realize how beautiful it is.”

Given her admiration for bats, it’s fitting that Griswold has been particularly distraught in recent years about the drastic demise of “the most perfect creature.” In the past, Griswold can remember counting 150 to 200 bats at the Winchester Land Trust. Now she feels lucky if she sees one or two on a given night. She attributes much of their disappearance to habitat destruction and the arrival of white nose syndrome, a disease that affects hibernating bats.

She also believes the problem is in part rooted in widespread misunderstandings about bats. “I continue my crusade to educate children,” Griswold said. “Teaching children to undo what we’ve done is truly a race against time.”

Griswold delivered her message, wearing a wool sweater decorated with bats, to a full house last Wednesday at the annual Branford Land Trust meeting at the Blackstone Memorial Library. Griswold is currently director of administration and development at the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield. She also recently earned her license to work with porcupines in a similar vein. Karen Hannon, who works at the Branford River Raptor Center, also shared her knowledge at the event, which was titled Bats: Earth’s Allies.

The Branford Land Trust (BLT) strives to “preserve open space in Branford, and to promote our community’s appreciation of Branford’s diverse natural features,” according to its mission statement. Every year, the BLT, which owns over 950 acres of land, offers a myriad of activities including educational programs for kids, nature walks, hikes, and other events. At the Wednesday gathering, board members presented updates from BLT’s 2013 annual report. The board then conducted its yearly nominations to elect new board members, with Amos Barnes elected to a second term as president.  The BLT recently launched a new website.

Bat Basics
After these brief presentations, Griswold began her talk by providing the audience with the “bat basics.”

Emma Zehner Photo

According to Griswold, bats are “major power players in the health of our planet.” Foremost, bats are mosquito-eating animals, and therefore help to prevent the spread of malaria and other mosquito-transmitted diseases. In addition, bats serve a significant role in the pollination process. Griswold also believes bats’ long lifespan, given their small size, may hold part of the key to “the fountain of youth.” One bat, the Brandt’s myotis, a species of vesper bat, has the longest recorded life span, with one bat living to 41 years of age.

Griswold also discussed the similarity she sees in the human and bat skeletal systems, pointing to the mammals’ similar brain to body ratio as evidence. “Sure he needs to get a manicure, but tell me he isn’t your distant cousin,” Griswold said.

White Nose Syndrome Disease
In 2006, researchers found the first reported case of white nose syndrome, which originated in Europe. Since then, white nose syndrome has killed over 5.7 million bats in North America, according to a report published by Bat Conservation International.  However, the syndrome has had minimal effects in Europe because Griswold believes “they have built up some sort of immunity.” When a bat contracts the disease, it experiences fungal growth on its face and wings.

When bats are woken up from hibernation, either because of white nose syndrome or due to pollution-related reasons, they immediately start burning calories and have no mechanism to refuel, eventually leading to death. In addition, because of their low birth rate, Griswold believes there is “no turning back.”

Hannon has firsthand experience with these circumstances. This past winter, she uncovered a Hoary Bat with a broken wing. She brought the bat to Branford Veterinary Hospital to have its wing set with a pin.

Emma Zehner Photo

On Wednesday, Hannon also brought two Silver Haired Bats to show the audience. She is currently holding these bats in captivity for medical reasons.

Given the vital role of bats, Griswold is appalled at the lack of national aid efforts. The federal government has allocated $970,000 to be split between 28 states. Hannon explained that the government is not likely to provide additional financial support until there is more concrete evidence of negative health implications.

“Now we are scrambling to find answers and we can’t learn anything from records because they don’t exist,” Griswold said.

Time to Create A Bat House
Besides funding, Griswold suggests that people create bat houses to offer bats an alternate habitat option.

As part of her effort to improve the bat condition, Griswold also hopes to combat common misperceptions about the animal.

Emma Zehner Photo

In Chinese culture, bats are synonymous with prosperity and good fortune. At the meeting, Griswold displayed a number of Chinese artifacts she has collected that feature bats as part of their designs.

On the other hand, the western world has long associated bats with vampires and most notably, rabies. “The sad thing is everyone thinks bats invented it,” Griswold said. However, Griswold explained that only 0.5% of bats have rabies and there are more rabid raccoons, skunks, and foxes in this state.

“Humans always feel they [animals] need to be serving us in some way,” Griswold said. “It’s very selfish. The fact that they belong here should be enough of a reason.”

After her presentation, Griswold invited audience members to the front of the room to observe the two bats and look at her collection. Several children in the room moved eagerly to the table to get a good look at the sleeping bats. After a brief question and answer session, the majority of other attendees joined the kids to look at the bats and ask the two experts additional questions.

The re-education was underway.

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