A BCI Member Wins a Place for Bats on U.S. Stamps
Americans have been sticking postage stamps on envelopes for 155 years - yet not one official U.S. stamp had ever borne the image of a bat. As a likely measure of bats' historic image problems, consider that the last time they were proposed for a commemorative stamp, bats reportedly lost out to a snake. Then rancher Carol Adams met history professor Virginia Noelke at a West Texas dinner party.
Adams and her husband Baxter are longtime members of Bat Conservation International and unabashed bat enthusiasts. Their Love Creek Ranch at Medina (northwest of San Antonio, Texas) sports a number of successful bat houses that often draw friends and neighbors for bat parties. We have, Adams says, "been big in bats for years."
Noelke, it turns out, is not only a professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, she is also chair, for almost 30 years, of the U.S. Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. At a party given by mutual friends in San Angelo, Adams says she discovered Noelke's role on the stamp committee, and, "I guess because I'm a bat lover, I asked her, 'Why haven't you ever done bats? They're wonderful, they have precious faces, and they need the help.'"
That was about two years ago. On September 13, 2002, four stamps featuring bat photos by BCI Founder and award-winning nature photographer Merlin Tuttle were dedicated with considerable fanfare. Noelke confirms that the first-ever U.S. bat stamps grew directly out of that conversation with Carol Adams.
Each of the first-class (37-cent) American Bat Stamps in the four-stamp set bears the close-up profile of a different species: the California leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus californicus), the eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), the pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus), and the spotted bat (Euderma maculatum). With the new stamps, the United States joins at least 75 other countries that have celebrated bats on their postage stamps (BATS, Spring 1999).
The dedication drew some 1,500 people to Austin's famous Congress Avenue Bridge, home of the world's largest urban bat colony. Among attractions were live bats, a bat-house-building workshop for kids (sponsored by BCI, the National Wildlife Federation, and Home Depot), stamp collectibles including first-day covers signed by Merlin Tuttle, and, of course, the spectacular evening emergence of some 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).
Tapping this unique opportunity to teach new audiences about the true nature of bats and their critical role in the balance of nature, BCI joined the National Wildlife Federation in producing bat-education pamphlets that were distributed with U.S. Postal Service assistance to some 300,000 educators and others. Those flyers dispelled dangerous bat myths for many people and produced several hundred new BCI members.
While bat stamps aren't likely to eclipse the 1993 Elvis Presley commemorative that became the Postal Service's all-time bestseller with more than 124 million stamps, they are proving popular. And their release during National Stamp-Collecting Month - a decision Noelke attributes to their expected fascination for children - is likely boosting sales.
As Carol Adams notes, bats on stamps are "just wonderful PR," but that opportunity is rare indeed. Out of tens of thousands of proposed stamp subjects, Noelke says her committee recommends only about 20 topics (including multi-stamp sets) each year to the Postmaster General.
The competition is fierce. An Internet search for Noelke's name finds thousands of individuals, organizations, fan clubs, even whole states that are urging email and letter-writing campaigns to convince her to choose some favored subject or another for a U.S. postage stamp.
"We as a committee are the target of any number of campaigns for certain stamps," Noelke says. "Sometimes a group even hires a PR firm to organize their campaign. If an idea piques our interest, it goes forward. Sometimes it does and sometimes not."
Two years ago, when Noelke asked Adams why bats might belong on stamps, Carol had the right answer: "I showed her a poster from BCI. ... Once she saw the pictures and heard the story about the Austin connection, she seemed interested."
Noelke says she's never been much of a fan of bats, but "I asked around and found a lot of people were interested in [bat stamps] as a general conservation topic. In Washington, I talked to our art director and he became very excited. It turns out they are very interesting and very photogenic. And on top of that, we thought kids would really enjoy it. ... We take seriously the idea that we can educate people with these stamps."
The Postal Service eventually contacted Tuttle about artwork for the stamps. He said the four bats were chosen for their attention-getting appearance and for their diverse geographic distribution. "We wanted the bats to represent every part of the United States," he said.
The process from dinner party to postage stamp was long and uncertain, but, Tuttle says, the stamps' educational value is immense. The wait was well worth it.