Bats are a big part of American folklore. They are mysterious and are feared by many people, often because they can transmit disease. But in Austin, Texas, bats are celebrated. Austin is built atop an abundance of caves that once held millions of bats. The bats play an important ecological role, consuming tons of insects per night – a large proportion of which are costly crop pests. Their guano is a superb fertilizer, and fortunes have been made selling it. European settlers sold guano for use in making gunpowder for the Civil War, and before the discovery of oil, guano was the largest mineral export from Texas.
As Austin’s civilization developed, roads and buildings began to cover the land. The bats were forced out of their caves. They made their homes under bridges. By the end of the 20th century, the people of Austin grew to fear and hate bats. Pest control companies were making millions killing them. Newspapers reported sensational stories of the horrors of bats – that they were rabid and invading Austin, attacking its citizens. This attracted the attention of Merlin Tuttle, a mammal curator at the Public Museum of Milwaukee.
Tuttle had been interested in bats since childhood. At the age of 17, he began significant, meticulous research, revealing evidence that bats migrate and do not live in caves year round as textbooks had stated. With the goal of keeping bats from being wiped out, Tuttle founded Bat Conservation International. In 1986, he moved to Austin to save the bats in a city where the people were trying to eliminate them. He started conversations with city leaders, engaged the media, and gave public lectures that drew large crowds. Over time, he convinced the people of Austin that bats are worth preserving. Eventually, because of Tuttle’s efforts, the people of Austin embraced the bats. The bats now keep the pest population down, attract tourists, and are celebrated with bat festivals.
This DVD is an excellent resource to use in a biology or environmental science class. It is appealing, attention-getting, and short enough to use in a single class period, with time leftover for discussion. It confirms the concept that the reputation of a living creature is often exaggerated or incorrect, and that creatures like bats are really interesting and need not be feared. The photography, much of it done by Tuttle himself, is stunning. There are exquisite visuals of bats, both up-close and in swarms. The film includes significant footage on bat ecology, as well as insightful information on how people interact with natural phenomena. The story of Merlin Tuttle will inspire students. The director stresses Tuttle’s interest in mammals and the research he began as a teenager. His careful, thorough habits of gathering, interpreting, and reporting his data provide an excellent example for showing students how scientists work. His story shows what can be accomplished when one person is committed to improving the environment.