Going to bat for misunderstood creatures Kensington expert attacks widespread untruths about the flying mammals

October 31, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Bat expert Nina Fascione says people tend to fear things they don't understand -- bats being a good example.

So last weekend at the Wild Bird Center in Columbia's Owen Brown village, she tried to dispel a few myths about the misunderstood furry, flying mammals -- just in time for Halloween.

Among the common untruths: hair attacks, blind bats and blood-sucking bats.

And at one point in her talk, she projected on a screen another, clearly outlandish falsehood: a tabloid front page depicting a boy with large, pointy ears and the headline: "Bat child found in cave."

Known as "The Bat Lady," Ms. Fascione of Kensington has worked with bats for more than nine years and co-chairs the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's bat advisory group.

Claire Horvath, co-owner of the bird store in Snowden Center, invited her because "I just feel sorry for [bats]. They've been maligned for so long."

The tabloid story illustrates just how exaggerated bat myths have become. Looking at a picture of Dracula on the screen, Ms. Fascione tackled another myth, "that all bats suck blood and Dracula turns into a bat."

"The story about Dracula turning into a bat didn't happen till Bram Stoker's novel and Bela Lugosi's movie," she said.

True, there are "vampire" bats, she said, but the small bats don't suck blood, "they lap it like a dog."

"You may have heard the saying, 'blind as a bat,' " she continued. "There aren't any bats that are blind. They all can see."

And bats don't get tangled in people's hair, Ms. Fascione said.

When Ms. Fascione asked who among her 60 listeners liked bats, most raised their hands. "The amount of people who say they don't like bats is beginning to change," she noted, adding that some people are installing bat houses in their yards.

"What are bats all about?" she asked. "Bats are very unique. They are the only mammals capable of being true in sustained flight."

Later, Ms. Fascione took Giza, a small, dark-eyed Egyptian fruit bat, from its cage. As she held the bat, Giza looked around, flapping her ears.

"I definitely don't recommend bats or any other wild animals as pets," Ms. Fascione said.

The fur on bats feels like hamsters' fur, Ms. Fascione said, and their wing membranes feel like latex gloves. The nocturnal, intelligent and ecologically important mammals use echolocation, or sound navigation, to find prey, she said.

There are almost 1,000 types of bats, including 10 or 12 species in Maryland. The world's smallest, the bumblebee bat, weighs about as much as a nickel, and the largest, the flying fox bat, has the wingspan of a surfboard.

As if playing an accordion, Ms. Fascione opened Giza's small left wing.

One boy asked to pet Giza, but Ms. Fascione's state permit allowing her to keep bats prohibits petting.

This time of the year, bats hibernate to caves, she said. But, she added, "A lot of bats like to live in people's homes. The good news is only 80 percent [of those] with bats know about it."

Looking in Giza's cage, astronomer David Leisawitz of Ellicott City asked his son: "Would you like to hang upside down all day?" Replied 4-year-old Alex: "No."

The event thrilled an Ellicott City nurse who has been intrigued by bats for years. In Texas, she lived in the middle of a bat migratory route and about 1,000 bats once flew into her attic, she said. A zoologist removed them.

The nurse, who would give her name only as Frances, said, "I'm already nuts. This would just confirm it."

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