Why They’re Rescuing Bats in Houston

CC BY 2.0. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Hurricane Harvey has put bats at risk, here’s why it matters.

On the grand scale of things, it may seem frivolous. While Houston is underwater and in the throngs of Herculean search and rescue efforts, wildlife experts are addressing the issue of imperiled bats.

The underside of the Waugh Bridge is home to a colony of 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats; as the Buffalo Bayou beneath it has risen, the bats have been trying to escape. Some have made it to surrounding buildings, others trying to flee have ended up in the water – struggling and drowning. Others, “too cold and wet to fly, simply remain in harm's way,” reports Popular Science. “Some of the bats did manage to get out. Others were found dead,” says Melissa Meierhofer, a wildlife researcher at the Texas A&M; Natural Resources Institute. “Some were being saved. They looked pretty wet.”

So why the sudden focus on bats? Sure, there are bat lovers for whom this might be of particular interest – compassion is compassion. But there are people and pets in dire need of attention. Yet here’s the thing: The Waugh Bridge colony eats around two and a half tons of insects every night. Without them, Houston’s mosquito population would look very different. Popular Science writes, "A dead bat is a bat that can no longer consume huge meals made of Houston's mosquitoes – mosquitoes that may lead to a proliferation of diseases after the flood."

Imagining all the stagnant water that will remain for who knows how long, this seems like a very relevant concern. As The Atlantic explains:

The devastating floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey will damage many human habitats, but after the flood recedes, the waterlogged city may become a more welcoming habitat for mosquitoes. And that means that residents already made vulnerable by the hurricane might also eventually be at increased risk for mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Zika.
West Nile virus has been endemic in Texas since 2002. In 2016, the state had 370 cases; so far in 2017, there have been 36 confirmed cases. Harris County, where Houston is located, has seen cases of West Nile in humans this year, and detected the virus in local mosquitoes.
Texas has also had 22 Zika cases in 2017.

So ... saving the bats is actually not only great for the bats, but an important consideration when thinking about potential mosquito-borne illness. Rescuing bats, however, is not the same as rescuing a pet dog. Bats run the risk of transmitting rabies and what are potential rescuers supposed to do with a soggy wild bat?

Amanda Lollar, founder of Bat World Sanctuary (and one of the people out there scooping up bats from the water) recommends picking up floating bats with a long stick and getting them into a bucket or box. They should then call Bat World Sanctuary (or contact them through Facebook). Bat World Sanctuary has carriers and medical supplies on site, including "syringes full of bat electrolytes" and emergency food. All the volunteers have rabies vaccinations and are used to dealing with these animals, Popular Science adds.

To see all of this effort is humbling; and to see everyone putting their expertise to work – whether it's maneuvering a fishing boat through residential blocks or scooping up drowning bats from the deluge – goes a long way in restoring a bit of faith in humanity.

The bat pictured, top, is a Mexican free-tailed bat from the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, Texas