Just before Halloween, zombies will dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” while bats watch from the distance at the Lubee Bat Conservancy. But don’t worry, these bats won’t be turning into vampires.
The 11th annual Florida Bat Festival on Oct. 24 aims to combat the “scary” stereotype haunting the species. Visitors can learn all bats from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.
“When people are going through here, they’re not just walking through and looking at the animals,” said Anthony Mason, development coordinator of the Lubee Bat Conservancy. “We have staff stationed throughout talking to people about the bats. We also have signs set up explaining different things about the bats and the environment.”
Guests will be able to tour the 110-acre conservancy and learn about how bats benefit ecosystems. They will also witness how bats interact, play and eat.
Mason said it is important that guests leave feeling more comfortable with the animals because bats have suffered from a stigma for a long time.
“If people leave with nothing else other than having seen them and seen that they’re not the scary creatures that some people think they are, then to me that’s almost enough,” Mason said.
Outside, the event offers food and drinks, merchandise, family friendly games, raffles and performances.
He said it is a big attraction for families. In the kid zone, there will be bounce houses, science experiments, bat-themed crafts and games, music, and educational exhibits.
Attendance for the festival has grown from just 64 guests to over 4,400. It is expected to grow even more this year, Mason said.
“The number of vendors has grown,” Mason said. “The number of food offerings has grown. We find even some food vendors are running out of food, and we’re having to bring in more people and more things just to keep up with the amount of people coming out for the event.”
They change the festival a little each year so people continue to come back. However, he said the most exciting addition this year is an extra plot of land at the front of the conservancy.
The land was recently cleared out by Gainesville’s Repurpose Project. For the festival, it will host new vendors and create more space.
At the event, the conservancy is decorated with extra foliage, fruits and toys to keep the bats engaged and distracted.
“There’s a lot of stuff they can interact with, so they’re investigating and climbing,” he said. “There haven’t been any negative reactions to the people coming through.”
Darby Guyn, a University of Florida wildlife ecology and conservation student, said she took interest in the festival after getting involved in a research opportunity sorting through bat calls in Swaziland.
“It sounds like an educational as well as fun time,” Guyn said. “I don’t have much time normally to get to read up on things like that.”
Mason said an important part of ensuring the future of the conservancy is to reach and educate different kinds of people.
“We want people to know bats are important,” he said. “Our primary mission is to protect and conserve bats in their ecosystems, so by reaching a diverse group of people, we get the biggest payout for bats.”