Conservation in the Bat Zone

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan – Bat-ter up!
You can step up to the plate at the newly renovated Bat Zone in Bloomfield Hills.
We’re not talking new batting cages at a fun park. This is North America’s only sanctuary and education center for bats and other nocturnal creatures.  It is run by the Organization for Bat Conservation at the Cranbrook Institute of Science.
The building recently got a $35,000 facelift: new floors, heating and cooling systems and lighting thanks to about 300 small donations and the Organization for Bat Conservation’s board of directors, said Philip Garofalo, the group’s communications manager.

The Bat Zone teaches about 12,000 visitors per year about bats and other nocturnal critters. It has almost 200 night-loving animals and nearly 20 nocturnal species. That includes a two-toed sloth, striped skunk, three species of owls and 12 species of bats, including the Malayan flying fox and straw-colored fruit bats.
All Bat Zone animals were rescued from the wild, former owners or even zoos. For example, Kamilah, a Malayan flying fox, was rescued from a zoo because of a wing injury and severe allergies. At the sanctuary she receives more attention: making sure she gets food and water, as well as Benadryl for her allergies, said Aja Marcato, the organization’s conservation programming director.
That type of individualized attention isn’t the only interaction between bat keeper and bat.
“Bats are very social and interact with staff constantly,” Marcato said. “They are curious and vocal whenever you enter their environments.
It’s such interaction and curiosity that are visible at the Bat Zone.  Everyday guests can take a tour and learn about the animals. A guide brings them eye-to-eye with numerous bats and if visitors are lucky, the guide can also coax a bat or two to demonstrate echolocation, the mechanism they use to navigate in the dark.
On Friday evenings, visitors walk the grounds of Cranbrook, watching for wild bats that happen to be flying silently through the night as they eat mosquitoes and other insects.
To help spot them, guides are armed with iPads attached to an Echo Meter Touch, a device that detects, records and identifies sound waves nearby bats emit to navigate.
That’s not the only way Bat Zone uses technology. To kick off the opening of the new building, the Organization for Bat Conservation held its first Facebook Live event with the Discovery Channel.
“We had about 60 people live commenting,” said Rob Mies, the executive director and founder. 
The plan is to continue using the new live-streaming function monthly through Facebook.
Other upgrades include replacing metal caging with glass, allowing people to get clearer views of the bats as they hang, fly or interact with ladders, bridges, toys and other items that staff provide to keep their minds and bodies healthy, Mies said.
The bats’ diets include fruits, insects and even cow’s blood, depending on the species. However local residents needn’t worry because bats in the Great Lakes region are strictly insectivores.
The organization is trying to teach as many people as possible about bats, their threats and how people can help them, Mies said.
Those threats include loss of habitat and pollution. But the largest concern is white nose syndrome, a fungus that wakes up hibernating bats and causes them to die of starvation or dehydration, he said.
“Within another 10 years or so, it is going to wipe out the majority of bat populations or at least individuals across North America,” Mies said. “Populations within the Great Lakes region have already drastically decreased.”
The organization’s Save the Bats Campaign has identified four ways people can help.
The Bat Zone is particularly helpful with the education part of the strategy, he said. “Most people don’t know how economically and ecologically important bats are.”
Another way to help is by setting up bat houses to provide safe places to raise their young, said Mies.
People can also garden for bats by planting certain flowers and plants like sky blue asters and chokecherry, or providing water through things like a bird bath.
And people can help by becoming bat experts and citizen scientists.
“We see these steps as a natural progression,” said Mies. First, you become educated, then you help because doing so benefits you, as bats will eat pesky insects around your home. Then you take things a step further and help others.”
Mies said one interesting thing is that bats are a lot like humans; they have friends and prefer certain bats, and even people, to others. “They have long-term memories, and long-term relationships, not only within their own family, but also with those outside their family.”
Coming up in the next few months is the launch of a kids’ club “designed as a way to get kids excited, not only about bats but for conservation as well,” Marcato said.
There’s also the 15th annual Great Lakes Bat Festival Sept. 17 at the Macomb Intermediate School District in Macomb.
Can’t make it to the Bat Zone?  Bat cams are available from the group’s website to watch bats 24/7 in their Bat Zone homes.

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