Though living almost 2,000 miles away in Parker, Colorado, Kathy Rogers has enjoyed virtually attending the Lubee Bat Conservancy’s annual Bat Fest activities this week in Gainesville.
Rogers, 54, who works for a financial services company, has never been to north central Florida. But she’s a huge bat lover and a fan of Lubee since discovering it on Facebook three years ago.
The whole week, Rogers has not missed any of the live events on the social media platform.
“I often wish I was the one in the cage with the bats, because I would love to get up close and personal with the furry, flying critters,” she said Thursday.
The festival typically draws between 4,000 to 5,000 people to the conservancy – home to 200 bats on Northwest 192nd Avenue – for a daylong event with vendors, a beer garden and a walk-through of the bat facility. However, due to the pandemic, the 2020 Bat Fest is a weeklong mix of virtual activities culminating Saturday in a socially distanced in-person event and 0.5K race.
Above: A Lubee Bat Conservancy fan living all the way in Colorado discusses her love for bats, and why she’s looking forward to this weekend’s virtual festivities. (Ellen Bausback/WUFT News)
Founded in 1989, Lubee is a nonprofit organization that considers Bat Fest its biggest fundraiser of the year, said its director, Brian Pope. It’s among hundreds of organizations statewide that have experienced negative financial impacts due to COVID-19.
“As a nonprofit, we’ve been hit pretty hard by the pandemic,” Pope said. “It’s been a lot quieter here. We’re trying all we can to chug along.”
Another concern: Combating misinformation about bats and COVID-19.
“To blame bats is absolutely false and wrong,” said Pope, who leads a facility which has the largest bat species diversity of any zoological institution in the world. “Nobody knows where this virus came from, and we may never know.”
He said the majority of pandemic-related feedback toward Lubee has been positive, and yet for safety reasons it has had to cancel its educational tours for schools and other requests.
The Bat Fest race will be around the Blackadder Brewing Co. on Saturday on Northwest 60th Street. Sissy Hart, who owns Blackadder with her husband, said the pandemic has made it even more important for small businesses to continue their partnerships, even as the brewery and others across the state are struggling because of COVID-related restrictions since the spring.
Hart hopes the in-person event has a large turnout, but said she doesn’t know what to expect.
“It’s really tough to say what the comfort level is going to be for folks,” she said.
Bat advocates say while the festival may feature fun and games, protecting the species is serious.
All 13 species of bats native to Florida eat insects, and many eat pests that can damage crops, said Holly Ober, a professor at the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, and president-elect of the Southeastern Bat Diversity Network.
The winged mammals have also been found to eat mosquitoes that can carry Zika and dengue, while facing significant threats from habitat degradation and light pollution, Ober said.
Bat conservationists strive to teach children the facts about bats, she said. For example, the perfect home for a bat is in a dead tree, but suburban development limits the number of haunts available. City lights also influence insect behavior, which affects a bat’s natural feeding pattern.
“A lot of people seem afraid of them, and I think much of that stems from misunderstandings or misperceptions,” Ober said.
George Bowser, 70, said the 2019 Bat Fest was a “really neat” experience.
“It’s just fun to watch them stretch and spread their wings,” said Bowser, who had at the time recently moved from Pennsylvania to the Meadowbrook neighborhood in Gainesville.
Bowser said these days he is afraid of going outside and getting sick, so he won’t attend the Blackadder event. His limited computer skills may keep him from watching any of the events this year, but the retired social worker looks forward to visiting Lubee again.
Rogers is already thinking about traveling to Florida for the 2021 Bat Fest. This week, she will drink a locally brewed beer in Colorado on Saturday while watching the Bat Fest livestream.
“They just kind of fascinate me,” Rogers said. “When I pull up Facebook, and I see one of their posts, and I see this adorable little bat – it just puts a smile on my face.”