Many of us grew up with some really gruesome stereotypes about bats. Vampire movies, horror stories and of course, the famous Halloween are all associated with images of scary black flying blood-sucking creatures of the night. They’re often also unfairly dubbed as “flying rats” – unfairly so, since the bats are more related to humans than they are to rats or dogs. Most species of bats can have only one pup a year and in the colonies, bats are known to adopt the orphaned pups and feed those youngsters that are not getting enough milk from their birth mother.
I myself have been scared of bats when I was a kid, with the folklore stories of bats purposely flying into one’s hair and drinking blood has been one of the many chilling stories whispered among kids during the sleepover nights.
Yet, now, living in Cambodia and running an animal wellness and rescue center, I often come across bats – mostly babies. Having had several close encounters with these beautiful creatures and after an extensive research, the “bad bat” myth I used to believe in quickly dissipated in the air.
Our recent rescue – a baby bat called Ariana – has been with us for nearly a week and the more I look after her, the more I fall in love with this little puppy-like face; and the more I learn from colleagues from the US and New Zealand and also from the bat rescue societies, the more I am fascinated with this animal.
Besides the unsettling childhood stories, I believe most people are anxious about bats because of how elusive and largely unknown they really are; they can rarely be seen and usually observed only while flying across the night sky, being, of course, nocturnal species.
Their echolocation ability to fly so silently fuels the fear and unfair myths. Most people believe that all bats have rabies – also a terribly misunderstood myth. Although they are mammals, only about 1 percent of all bats in the world carry rabies. So they are much less dangerous than a pack of unvaccinated street dogs. And of course, the fact that there are few species of bats that rely on blood for their dietary needs does not help dispel the scary stories about bats.
Yet, bats are not only fascinating. They are important part of our global ecosystem. There are only three bat species that feed solely on blood – the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat – but they live in Central and South America. At night, they emerge to feed on blood from livestock, pigs, birds and horses and very, very rarely, do they approach humans.
According to the National Geographic, rather than “sucking blood, vampire bats make a small cut with their teeth and then lap up flowing blood with their tongues”. These are the bats that may carry and spread rabies.
Yet, while we are all freaking out about these species of vampire bats that live mostly in Central and South America, there are approximately another 1,300 species of bats all over the world that are not only harmless, but in fact vital to the healthy ecosystem and are an essential part in the natural world. A small mammal, they make up 20 percent of the mammal population on Earth. Most of them feed on fruit, insects and flower nectar. New bat species are constantly discovered, but still little is known of these incredible animals.
In Cambodia, most bats are fruit bats and feed exclusively on fruit and insects; they pollinate flowers and discard the seeds that later grow into trees, so their importance to our own human survival cannot be underestimated. Did you know that according to the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) “in some islands in the Pacific Ocean, bats are so important that they are known as keystone species and without them the ecosystem would collapse!”
Moreover, in tropical forests, bats are important pollinators of many plant species. In fact, some plants evolved to bloom only at night to attract bats. BCT reports that “there are bats that behave much like hummingbirds – their long, narrow faces and exceptionally long tongues allow them to delve deep inside flowers to drink the nectar”. And so they go, working at night and during their travels from plant to plant bats carry pollen and help to pollinate the flowers.
Bats also discard the seeds from the soft fruits they eat, which basically means the seeds can become mature trees. I am sure you love your avocados, peaches and mangos, but these fruits might not be here if it weren’t for bats.
Today, over 20 percent of the bat population is threatened with extinction – 25 species are classified as critically endangered, with at least five species already listed extinct.
Like every part of our planet, even these little mammals are facing imminent danger of disappearing.
As I look at Ariana, her delicate wings and her big beautiful eyes, as she climbs on my sleeve and snuggles under my chin, I think: Oh little bat, I gotcha. I know I have to teach you to fly and then one day you will fly far enough to meet your own colony and stay with your own species, while helping mine to survive.
Animal Mama® Animal Clinic & Welfare Centre provides a wide range of services for animals & pets: vet care, boarding, daycare, pet food & supplies, hydrotherapy, grooming and doggy play dates.
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