September 2, 2011
Amidst giggles, the glimmer of a flashlight and a few excited screams, fourth grader Hannah Hensley emerged from a dark cave.
"It was awesome!" she said.
The inflatable cave, a life-size replica of a bat's habitat, was part of the fifth annual Indiana Bat Festival at Indiana State University. The free Aug. 27 event was offered courtesy of the Indiana State University Center for North American Research and Bat Conservation.
Hensley's friend Emma Woodward soon exited from the cave, eager to show off a pair of bat sunglasses. The artwork on her hand told of a recent stop at the festival's face-painting room.
"I went barefoot, and I had to crawl through," she said of the cave. "I saw a stuffed bat!"
Woodward said that although the cave was her favorite part so far, she hadn't seen the live bats yet.
That demonstration was just down the hall, where bat expert Rob Mies dispelled some common myths before bringing out several live bats.
Mies, director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, said people have come a long way in learning about the animals.
"Hundreds of years ago, we thought bats were birds with fur," he said.
But years of study and new technology has provided much more insight into the winged creatures.
"Bats are the only mammals in the world that can fly," he said as an example.
The large lecture room was filled of people of all ages, ranging from those that have been attending the festival for years to families with kids ready to see bats in action.
Among the audience was Holly Tipton of West Terre Haute, who complimented Mies' demonstration and interactive presenting style.
"He's got a great personality and really interacts with the kids," she said.
Tipton attended the festival for her second year along with her 8-year old nephew.
"How do bats locate things?" said Mies, pointing to a young boy with his hand raised high.
"Echolocation," was the eager response.
Mies looked impressed. "I learned that in college, so that's great," he said, prompting laughter from the audience.
Mies brought out different types of bats, walking around the room to offer wide-eyed kids a close-up look at the fascinating creatures. Mies introduced one of the bats as "Congo," a fruit-consuming bat from Africa.
"They don't seem as scary after you see this," Tipton said after watching the demonstration.
That's the goal of the Bat Festival, according to John Whitaker, professor of biology at ISU and director of the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation. He hopes the public leaves knowing a little more about the creatures.
"We try to change their impression of bats. Let them realize that they ought to be helping preserve bats," said Whitaker.
Many people don't realize that the animals are responsible for consuming insects which carry diseases and eat crops, said Whitaker.
Visitors had the chance to view these beneficial qualities in action during the night portion of the festival at Dobbs Park. There, attendees had the chance to observe bats with special audio equipment, watching as the bats navigated and fed using echolocation.
The festival appeared to be helpful for Tipton, who said she received some tips from experts at the festival.
"I've got a bat house I want to put up. They told me I should paint it brown, that kind of thing," she said.
Tipton said she also talked to representatives from Wildcare, an organization which rehabilitates many types of animals, including bats, about using her property as a release site for bats reentering the wild.
The organization serves South Central Indiana, working to return sick, injured and orphaned animals to their natural habitats.
Gabe Hinds, a representative for Wildcare, said they work with several species of bats, including red, silver, and big brown bats.
"They're amazing little animals," he said.
Wildcare was just one of many organizations that lined the hallways of the Science Building during the Bat Festival. Other groups included environmental organizations such as the Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Fish and Wildlife and the ISU Recycle Center.
In addition to presentations and organization booths, the event's offerings included a silent auction, live auction, bake sale and merchandise tables.
Bats, although the focus of the day, were not the only winged creatures in attendance at the festival.
Mark Booth from Take Flight! Wildlife Education introduced a variety of hawks, falcons and owls during his presentation.
One of the first was a red-tailed hawk named Jack. Jack and Booth have been working together for 27 years.
"Back then, I was skinny. He looked exactly the same," joked Booth.
He, like Mies, kept the audience engaged and entertained.
Whitaker hope attendees to the free event not only enjoyed themselves, but walked away knowing a little bit more about the animals.
"Many people are afraid of bats, think they're terrible and all that kind of stuff," he said.
"But they should go away with the idea that bats are very beneficial to us."
Audience members study a bat being held by Mies, director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. ISU Photo
A boy dresses as a bat for the fifth annual Bat Festival. ISU Photo
Mark Booth from Take Flight! Wildlife Education introduced a variety of hawks, falcons and owls. ISU Photo
Contact: John Whitaker, Center for North American Research and Bat Conservation, director at 812.237.2383
Writer: Bethany Donat, Indiana State University, Office of Communications and Marketing, media relations assistant at 812.237.3773
The bat festival is sponsored by the Indiana State University Center for North American Research and Bat Conservation.