Two decades ago, "The Nightmare House" offered a fairly typical media portrait of bats in those days. The story in a respected national magazine contended that a terrified family had been "imprisoned" in its home for four nights by hordes of crazed bats. The deranged creatures crashed into windows and doors, desperately seeking entry for some unknown, but no-doubt nefarious purpose.
The media in those years spread wild exaggerations and harmful misinformation about bats; then they reported, often sensationally, the unreasoning fears that resulted. The challenge facing Bat Conservation International at its birth in 1982 was clear.
The world of the 1980s was a consistently hostile place for bats. Practically everyone "knew" that bats were disease-ridden pests that would suck your blood -- or at least become hopelessly entangled in your hair. Published photos of bats invariably showed disheveled creatures with their wings stretched painfully open, while fear and discomfort produced an unnatural look of bared-teeth anger. Pest- and rabies-control industries often fanned the fears, then put a hefty price tag on services.
BCI almost immediately began a positive public-education campaign. The organization won an early victory when The Wall Street Journal published on its front page one of the first positive stories about bats ever to appear in a national publication. The article featured BCI and quoted founder Merlin Tuttle.
Patient and carefully accurate work with newspaper, magazine, and television reporters is still paying dividends for bats, as do outreach programs to schools and community groups around the world. Of critical import, realistic bat photography, using techniques pioneered by Tuttle, showed for the first time bats' gentle nature and delightful appearance -- when they aren't being tormented. Building alliances among pest- and rabies-control industries led to improved tolerance, including broad commitments to non-lethal exclusion as the appropriate solution in cases where bats became nuisances in buildings.
BCI depends on its members to keep us informed about the media's portrayals of bats. Please forward media clippings to BCI, in care of Bob Benson (firstname.lastname@example.org). When the situation warrants, write to your local newspaper or television station to correct myths.
A measure of just how far bats have come is found in BCI's home of Austin, Texas. "Mass fear in the air as bats invade Austin" read a headline in The Austin American-Statesman after hundreds of thousands of bats moved in under a renovated downtown bridge. A frightened populace demanded their removal and their destruction seemed imminent.
BCI, after moving to Austin in 1986, worked with the city's media to dispel myths and explain that the bridge bats eat tons of the area's most costly insect pests each summer night. Today, the Congress Avenue Bridge houses the world's largest urban bat colony, which has become one of the top tourist attractions in a city that now calls itself the Bat Capital of America. Positive and entertaining education has worked wonders for bat conservation.
The media throughout North America and much of the world have become far more friendly toward bats, often serving as crucial allies in explaining the truth about bats. BCI today has become the most trusted and frequently contacted source of information for major newspapers, corporate newsletters, magazines of all kinds (from The New Yorker to repeated appearances in National Geographic), and a broad assortment of Web sites. Tuttle's photos are reproduced around the world, including this year on the first U.S. postage stamps ever to celebrate bats. BCI collaborations on national and international television and radio news reports and documentaries have reached hundreds of millions of people.
While most bat stories these days are far more accurate and balanced than 20 years ago, old habits sometimes are hard to break. Scare stories still appear from time to time, but now they rarely go unchallenged by BCI or our ever-alert members and allies. The New York Times, in September 2000, repeated misleading fears of disease and profiled a suburban pest controller who charges New York families as much as $5,000 or more to remove bats from their homes. Soon after, The Times published a letter to the editor from a National Audubon Society official responding to the story. The letter was headlined: "Repeat After Me: Bats Are Our Friends."
Vigilance, along with such prompt responses, remains vital. Scare stories even today can lead to the killing of thousands of bats. Nevertheless, through BCI's efforts, more and more people the world over are discovering that the truth about bats is even more fascinating than the myths.
BCI has for a decade been sponsoring bat eco-adventures to some of the world's most exotic locations for its members. On visits to 16 countries so far, we have given members the unforgettable experience of capturing and releasing some of the world's most spectacular bat species, as well as seeing a broad range of other rarely seen wildlife. Revenue from these trips is often invested in bat-conservation projects in the countries we visit. For information about upcoming eco-adventures, visit BCI's Web site at www.batcon.org 512-327-9721.