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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
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Save the bats
Teaching children about an important but misunderstood animal
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Barb Bowman: It's much easier to teach kids about bats because they're open to new things.
Barb Bowman: It's much easier to teach kids about bats because they're open to new things.

Some of the more common questions kids ask Ken and Barb Bowman about bats demonstrate how urban legend has influenced the way children as well as their parents perceive these nocturnal flying mammals.

"Kids ask if all bats are vampires," says Bowman, who with his wife, Barb, runs the volunteer organization Bat Conservation of Wisconsin (or BCOW) in Sun Prairie. "A lot of parents ask about rabies. They see things on TV like bats getting stuck in hair and that all bats are blind, and that makes an impression. That's why we do what we do."

For the past 12 years the Bowmans have been answering just such questions about bats and teaching primarily kids at about 30 educational programs at state park nature centers, libraries and some schools. And with the high likelihood of serious bat disease reaching Wisconsin soon, that education is more important than ever.

The Bowmans founded the nonprofit Bat Conservation of Wisconsin in 1999, turning their fascination with bats into a passion. "In the early 1980s, everyone was into saving the wolves, the polar bears and baby seals, but nobody was saying 'let's go save the bats,'" says Ken Bowman.

Bat Conservation of Wisconsin educates people about the benefits of bats in the environment, and is licensed to perform bat rescue and rehabilitation through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Last winter, for example, the Bowmans rescued a record 205 bats. The winter before they helped 193 survive the winter after people found them hanging on rooflines, attics and in old houses. "In the wintertime, we maintain all the bats we capture or get in. If you take them outside they will starve to death," says Ken.

From the middle of September through the winter, BCOW receives 10-15 bats a day that people find and do not want around their house. In the middle of winter, it can take up to 45 minutes to feed and care for all the bats.

Twelve bats are permanent residents at BCOW, not releasable due to injury. The type of bats that currently call BCOW home reflect some of the variety of species commonly found in Wisconsin: Hoary, Big Brown and Little Brown. These permanent residents become part of the organization's education efforts, the ultimate teaching aid.

"It's much easier to teach kids about bats because they're open to new things and don't have the fears that adults have," says Barb Bowman. "Anytime you bring a live animal to a program, kids love it. They are very curious. Some little girls think they're icky, but most people think they're cute." Most kids, in fact, want to touch the bats, which is strictly forbidden. Although cute, they are wild animals and to be left alone.

Another big part of their lesson on bat benefits: All Wisconsin bats are night insect eaters. "They eat a lot of insects that bother us and our food supply," Bowman says. "In Wisconsin they only eat nighttime flying insects, including mosquitoes, gnats, moths, beetles and June bugs."

About the bug eating: Ken notes that kids always want to know if bats will eat lightning bugs. The answer: No.

Nor do all bats carry rabies, another one of those urban myths. "In the wild, raccoons and skunks have higher incidence of rabies than bats," Ken says. He says in the past 60 years, two people in Wisconsin have died as a result of encountering a bat with rabies.

It's more important now than ever to dispel these bat myths and educate kids about bats' role in the ecosystem, according to the Wisconsin DNR and others interested in preserving bats. The DNR has undertaken an aggressive campaign on behalf of these animals as they wait for a fungal bat disease that affects hibernating bats to hit the state. The department has also proposed a new set of emergency measures to protect bats from the fungus.

White-nose syndrome, fatal for some affected bats, has not yet been discovered in any Wisconsin bat species, but has been found as close as 230 miles away in Missouri, as well as 300 miles north in Canada. DNR conservation biologist Paul White says white-nose syndrome could hit Wisconsin's bats this winter or next.

White advises families to learn about the disease, which causes hibernating bats to prematurely leave their cave or other hibernating spot during the winter in search of food. Then, if they notice bats outside in January and February, they can report the information using the DNR's online data form or by calling the department. They can also participate in the DNR's bat monitoring Programs next spring.

"Unfortunately, I think people will only realize the good things bats do after they're gone," White says.

For more about bats

Bat Conservation of Wisconsin

Bat Conservation International

White-nose syndrome (Wisconsin DNR information)

Wisconsin DNR proposed emergency bat measures

Bat Monitoring Programs

For more information on Bat Conservation of Wisconsin or to talk to them about presenting an education program for your group, contact them at 608-837-2287 or info@batcow.org.

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