Blind as a bat, bats tangled in your hair, bats hanging out in belfries. We’ve all heard those myths and legends.
Much maligned, bats are among the most feared and relentlessly persecuted animals on earth.
Not so fast, says the “Bat Lady.” An assistant elementary assistant school principal and regional bat expert, Tonyea Mead has spent two decades dispelling traditional myths that have long clouded the understanding of the reclusive creatures.
Mead’s mission: present bats in a warmer and fuzzier approach.
“Many of these nocturnal animals, especially bats, are misunderstood or under-appreciated because we don’t see them during the day,” explained Mead, who lives in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
“Bats play a serious role in the balance of nature and human economies,” Mead explained. “They get rid of mosquitoes and other night-flying, pesky insects, eating up to their own body weight in bugs. In the tropics the pollination activities of fruit and nectar-eating bats are vital to the survival of the rain forests.”
Mead is appearing at the Delaware Natural History Museum (DNHM) on Saturday, Oct. 30 to enlighten and entertain both kids and adults about the positive contributions of bats to the world, as well as dispel damaging myths and mysteries that plague the world’s only true flying mammal.
The event “Bats and Other Creatures of the Night,” is keyed to the museum’s annual Halloween event celebrating the habits, habitats, and adaptations of nocturnal animals. They will display a variety of bat specimens so visitors can take up-close looks at these fascinating animals. Last year 500 people turned out for the event that attracts loads of families, especially those with young kids.
“The kids are all wide-eyed, very excited, while the parents are going ‘yuck’,” Mead said of the slide presentation and talk at the DNHM. “The children want to learn as much as they can.”
Mead was first introduced to the species in third grade when her father caught a bat at their house.
“My teacher let me bring it into school as part of show-and-tell,” Mead recalled. “I carried it in a little jar. The bat rode along with me on the bus. Back then you could do that. Not so today.”
Walk into Mead’s kitchen and visitors are greeted by an array of bat chairs, bat dishes, bat placemats and bat backdrops. In late spring Mead brings sick and abandoned baby bats found in the wilds into her home and nurses them back to life, releasing them back to nature in August.
“The babies are sort of cute, they act a lot like kittens,” Mead said. “Their ears twitch and they fly over to me like I’m their mom. They live in a container on top of a heating pad. I feed them with an eye-dropper, and later a tweezer. For me, it’s a very rewarding endeavor.”
In 1995 Mead met a real live “Batman,” Merlin Tuttle. He is the founder and president of Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas, an organization devoted to conservation, education, and research initiatives involving bats and the ecosystems they serve.
“Merlin showed me that knowledge is the key to appreciating these creatures,” noted Mead. “He teaches people to understand and value bats as essential allies, the importance of protecting critical bat habitats and encouraging others to join in our conservation efforts.”
Using echo-location to navigate, bats can travel up to 30 miles from the roost, flying as high as two miles over waterways and farms. At dawn, the animals return to their roost in groups, having eaten the human equivalent of 50 pizzas.
The bats spend the daylight hours hanging upside down, clustered tightly together, in their roost. If you’re nearby you can hear the animals chittering.
"They're social little guys," noted Mead, who has studied their vocalizations. “Listen closely, and you can hear buzzes, chirps, trills, beeps and clicks.”
As for some of those myths, Mead relates:
• There are no blind bats. They see extremely well. • Bats get tangled in your hair. Not so. Their sophisticated sonar system allows bats to dodge wires as fine as human hairs—in the dark. • Bats are rabid attackers of humans. Bats are actually clean, meticulous groomers. In 20 years of studying bats, she’s never been attacked or harmed by one. • Bats are bloodsuckers. Most bats are nocturnal and eat primarily insects. Only three of the one thousand or so bat species ingest blood. They live only in Latin America, and only one feeds on livestock while the others feed on the blood of birds.
So what does Mead want families to take away from her presentation the day before Halloween?
“Bats are the good guys, there is a reason why they were placed on earth,” Mead replied. “People always come up to me saying they never knew anything about bats, and tell me thanks for helping them out.”