A house painter showed up at the Zoo Atlanta reptile house in 1982 with a box of tiny, squirming animals that he had found. "The curator of the Georgia zoo wanted a volunteer to take care of these things," recalls herpetologist Susan Barnard. "I looked in the box, and there were a lot of these little squiggly things in there. I thought, 'Ewww! These are bats. Not me.'" But she ended up taking the orphaned bat pups home after all.
That's how Susan Barnard became quite possibly the first bat rehabilitator in the United States. It's also how she came to meet the head of a tiny organization that almost no one had ever heard of: Bat Conservation International.
In August 1982, Merlin Tuttle visited Barnard. Who called whom is lost in the mists of time, but by the time he left, Merlin had photographed her bats and Susan had become BCI Member Number 66, as she is to this day.
Susan taught herself how to care for bats. Ultimately, only one of the baby bats survived: a female named Egore, who lived with Susan for 9½ years. "I wrote a story about her that was published in Animal Keepers Forum. From that point on, things just took off as people heard about this woman who will take care of bats if you find one on the ground." A lot of folks seemed to need help with bats.
Susan wrote her first book on caring for bats in the late 1980s and has since published a popular four-volume Bats in Captivity series. She founded the nonprofit Basically Bats Wildlife Conservation Society in 1992 for her rehabilitation efforts. Along the way, she frequently told the story of bats to schoolchildren and adults around the region. Of education and conservation, she says, "It all goes together. You really can't do one without the other."
Susan stuck with BCI through all these years largely because "if you're going to work with bats, it's very important to stay in touch with what's going on in the world of bats. And BCI does a very good job with that, especially with BATS magazine. Some of the people that I contacted after they were mentioned in BATS magazine, I'm still friends with today."
Now 76 years old and retired in Florida, Susan said she's enthusiastic about BCI's future. "I happen to know Nina (Executive Director Nina Fascione). I met her a long, long time ago, and I was very pleased to see Nina step in when Merlin stepped down."
Asked what she tells people about how they can benefit by joining BCI, Susan said, "That's not what it's about. It should be, 'What can I do for BCI and bats?'"
Susan was there when BCI needed her. An elementary school in Sandersville, Georgia, was in a panic after bats "invaded" their lunchroom in 1990, so we contacted Susan. She went to the community and gave presentations about bats to children and parents at four schools. The bats were safely excluded, the children returned to their cafeteria and everyone seemed to have more appreciation for bats. Her efforts drew positive statewide news media attention.
That's the impact that a single dedicated BCI member can have.