The Lubee Bat Conservancy is working hard to breed rare, exotic bats to support the wild populations of bats across the globe. They promoted this effort with the 19th annual Bat Festival.
Event attendees like Tulpa Black, 36, were enthralled by the furry creatures at the festival.
“They eat mosquitoes. They’re sky puppies. They’re misunderstood, and so am I,” Black said.
Bats are a keystone species in many ecosystems across the globe, including north central Florida.
Clementine Mulvihill, 25, is originally from Seattle, Washington. Currently, she lives in Gainesville and is Lubee Bat Conservancy’s education coordinator. She also works as one of the conservancy’s animal keepers.
“We are a really unique facility in that we maintain an active population of exotic fruit bats here in Florida,” Mulvihill said. “But we also do active conservation work out in the wild in over 20 different countries.”
She explained that they conduct species survival plan breeding. This means that the conservancy breeds these rare fruit bats so that they can be released into the wild back in their native habitats, should those wild populations ever begin to decline dramatically. It is like an insurance policy, but for nature.
“Our fruit bats are really important for seed dispersal, forest regrowth and forest diversity,” Mulvihill said. “It is estimated that bats save the US agricultural industry anywhere from 3 to 53 billion dollars a year in pest control. . . . They are really important for the economy.”
Avocados, mangos and bananas are some of the most popular fruits in the world. What do these fruits have in common? Bats pollinate them. Bats are also responsible for pollinating over 300 other fruits as well.
Heddy Vernon, 52, is a Girl Scouts of Gateway Council membership manager. She hosted a booth promoting the Girl Scouts at the event and said it is important to spread environmental awareness to younger generations.
“I think it’s important that youth know how to respect nature and learn about it so that they’re not afraid and know they’re an important part of our world,” Vernon said.
Gainesville is no stranger to bats. Every night, like a symphony of mice, half a million bats squeak in unison at the University of Florida bat houses.
Retired entomologist Lee Bloomcamp attended the bat festival. She said that she was one of the key proponents of creating the bat houses at UF.
“I was director of pest control in 1987,” Bloomcamp said. “Normally, that means trapping raccoons and getting rid of mice and things like that. But we did occasionally find bats.”
She explained that a colony of bats had been living in the attic of Johnson Hall on campus. The building was destroyed by a fire in 1987, leaving the bats homeless. They eventually migrated to live under the bleachers at UF’s track and field stadium, with some surprising consequences.
“There was a gentleman named Bob Martinez, who was our governor at the time,” Bloomcamp said. “He and his entourage came to the track and field stadium to be part of an event.”
She said there was a strange odor in the stadium and that as the governor’s entourage was leaving, the bats were going out to feed.
“As they go out to feed at dusk, they lighten their load,” Bloomcamp said. “So… the governor got excreted upon by a whole bunch of bats.”
Because of this, UF’s athletic association approached the school’s environmental health and safety department with the request to eradicate the bats. Bloomcamp did not think that was appropriate, so she brought Bat Conservation International to come give a talk at UF. One year later, the athletic association provided funding for what ended up becoming the world’s largest occupied bat houses.
Kim Chaffin, 48, of St. Louis said that she used to work at the Lubee Conservancy about 20 years ago. Her enthusiasm for the conservancy took on a physical form.
“I worked at another museum in South Florida… I worked with the bats there and I had come here and visited,” Chaffin said. “And afterward, I was like, I want to work here and I ended up getting the logo – the Lubee logo – tattooed on my back.”
Even event attendees who were not volunteering shared their enthusiasm for bat conservation. Attendees like Heather Mahoney, 47, from Inverness, Florida.
“Without them [the bats], we would collapse a bunch of ecosystems and put a lot more animals at risk of extinction, and they’re pollinators,” Mahoney said. “They are insectivores, they eat all those bugs. I just feel like they’re just way too important to ignore.”
Retiree Karen Alberts, 80, from Trenton, Florida said that she likes bats because she dislikes bugs.
“Bats eat a lot of bugs,” Alberts said. “If you don’t like bugs, you like bats.”
Bloomcamp said she felt like the attendees at this event would actually make a difference when compared to attendees from other events where she had tried to spread awareness.
“This crowd is a little different than like going to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens or Pride or you know, some of the other events that go on around in Gainesville,” Bloomcamp said. “These attendees are legitimately interested, rather than a lot of folks that have kind of a casual interest… they think they’re cool, and they take your literature and they walk away and they’ll probably never look at it again.”
Alberts exemplified this legitimate interest. She said that she attended to either win a bat house or buy one if necessary so that she could install it outside of her own home back in Trenton.
The Women’s Rugby Club at UF was volunteering at the Bat Festival. Among them was Ailish Coughlin, 20. She said that volunteering at events like this was important because of how crucial bats are to our environment.
“I think it’s nice to, you know, give them a brighter side to what bats are,” Coughlin said. “People typically assume that they’re just scary little rodents, but they’re so sweet and they do their, they do their job for the environment.”