In the middle of the night, the Island resident knew immediately something was wrong. Soon she discovered there was a strange creature in her house. What to do? The woman knew the answer. She phoned Shelter Island’s Animal Control Officer Jenny Zahler.
“She was freaked out, but smart,” said Officer Zahler, who is part of the Police Department. “Most people say, ‘It was so late, I didn’t think I should call,’ but this is my job, to answer your call.”
At the residence, a charming old house in the Heights, she said, it wasn’t long before she found a brown bat, hanging upside down on a curtain in the kitchen. Bats spend a lot of time upside down, sleeping, feeding and raising their young.
Bats are mammals (the only ones that can fly) and like being upside down because, since their wings are not as strong as birds, to gain flight it’s much easier for them to drop and fly. According to the National Park Service, bats spend an enormous amount of energy flying and feeding, mostly on insects.
Officer Zahler said the bat had gained access to the house — “They’re small and can squeeze through really tight spaces” — to hibernate.
GETTING INTO A TORPOR
On the Island, through spring, summer and autumn, bats (or to give them their proper name, Chiroptera) can be seen at dawn and dusk, flying just above the tree line, and over creeks and streams where insects are hovering. Some species of bats, according to the National Library of Medicine, can reach in-flight speeds of 100 mph.
When the cold weather drives insects away, bats will either hibernate to conserve energy, or head for warmer climes, following the bugs. When they hibernate, they enter into what scientists call a “torpor,” but can be awakened by several events. The torpor lowers metabolism so the animal doesn’t require food for survival.
Officer Zahler thought the middle-of-the-night brown bat woke up because of the unusually warm weather we’ve been having this winter. Thinking it might be spring, it came out of its torpor and began to fly, finally settling on the kitchen curtains as a good place to hang out.
Officer Zahler captured the bat and, since the ferries were shut down for the night, placed it in a box and the next morning took it to the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, where the bat will be kept over the winter.
How did she capture the bat? “Magic,” Officer Zahler said with a smile. Then, “I have a net.”
CREEPY OR COOL?
In our culture, bats are seen in two different ways, as beyond creepy (Dracula) or a force of good (Batman). But most people are in the former camp, seeing the tiny creatures as bloodsuckers out and about at night, carriers of disease, and that weird hanging-upside-down thing.
In fact, there is no such thing as a blood-sucking bat. A species in Central and South America will bite an animal — very rarely a human — and then lap up a bit of the blood.
Bats do carry several infectious diseases. According to the National Library of Medicine the animals “are natural reservoir hosts and sources of infection of several micro-organisms, many of which cause severe human diseases. Because of contact between bats and other animals, including humans, the possibility exists for additional interspecies transmissions and resulting disease outbreaks.”
But bats don’t want anything to do with humans, and keep their distance, only rarely running into us by accident, and eliminating bats is not an answer to protect humans.
Raina Plowright, a wildlife veterinarian and researcher at Montana State University, told the Washington Post that getting rid of bats “would be a disaster. They provide huge ecosystem services.”
The United States Geological survey has reported that, “By eating insects, bats save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control. Some studies have estimated that service to be worth over $3.7 billion per year, and possibly as much as $5.3 billion per year.”
According to Echo Health Alliance, “One bat is capable of eating up to 1,200 mosquitoes in a single hour. Between malaria, dengue fever, and other vector-borne illnesses, mosquitoes claim roughly 750,000 human lives per year.”
Even though bats can have viruses within them, their health is not negatively affected. They also live much longer than most small mammals, up to 40 years in many cases, says the National Library of Medicine.
Both facts are why scientists are studying the physiology of bats, to find out how they resist falling ill to viruses.
Bats are not blind, but do use what’s called “echolocation,” a kind of natural sonar to navigate dark places. They’re also not crazy.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
Officer Zahler considers bats intriguing creatures on every level. “Not many people know that bats hug each other and rub noses,” she said. “When a mother bat enters a cave, she can recognize her baby’s voice out of a thousand bats in there.”
One of the most difficult parts of her job, she said, is people having no understanding of wildlife. “People think wildlife make good pets,” she said. “No, they do not make good pets.”
Bringing that box turtle or adorable bunny home will only hurt them, and cause problems for the would-be owners. “You can’t replicate a wild animal’s environment,” she added.
And if you think it’s a good idea to get rid of what you consider a pest by yourself, or handling a wild creature, think again. Call a professional: 631-749-5771, or email [email protected]. She’ll answer the call.