(This Dave Barry column was originally published Oct. 29, 2000.)
There has never been a TV series where the animal hero was a bat. Why not? Why couldn't Lassie have been a bat? There could have been an episode wherein Lassie and her young master, Timmy, are frolicking around the farm, with Lassie playfully catching insects for Timmy via sonar, when suddenly ... UH-oh! Timmy is caught in the quicksand!
So Lassie flits as fast as she can back to the farmhouse, where she squeaks and hurls her tiny self against the screen door until Timmy's family, realizing that something is wrong, comes running outside and kills Lassie with a rake. Because people generally hate bats. Plus they are getting sick and tired of Timmy falling into the quicksand every other week. But my central point is that bats have a poor public image.
This is unfair, because bats play a vital role in the ecology, as opposed to dogs, who hardly ever do anything except bark and emit paint-peeling puffs of flatulence, which would be a good name for a rock band.
Fortunately, there are people working on behalf of bats -- people who study bats; who respect bats; who love bats; who have, on occasion, TASTED bats. A group of these people met recently in Miami for the 30th annual North American Symposium on Bat Research. On hand to provide retail diversion was a company called Speleobooks (''Cave and Bat Goods''), which was selling a wide array of bat-themed merchandise, including bat jewelry, bat candles, bat shirts, bat ties, bat baby clothes, bat sculptures, bat tissues, bat cookie molds, bat Christmas-tree ornaments, bat hot sauce and bat tea towels.
The symposium itself was a serious affair, consisting of bat researchers presenting scientific papers on such topics as ''Feeding Ecology of the Naked-Backed Bats''; ''More on the Complexities of Water Hole Use by a Coloradan Bat Community''; ''Common Vampire Bat Management in Nicaragua''; ''Is Leptonycteris curasoae an Unreliable Pollinator?''; ''Is Myotis lucifugus the Mosquito Hunter of the Night?'' and of course the question that is on everyone's mind: ``Do Frugivorous Bats Provide Directed Dispersal for a Large-Seeded Tropical Tree?''
(For the record, another good name for a rock band would be ''Mosquito Hunter and the Unreliable Pollinators.'' )
I talked to several bat scientists at the symposium, and here are some of the bat facts I learned:
--Wherever you live in the world, there are bats nearby. In fact, LOOK OUT THERE'S ONE COMING AT YOU NOW!!!
--No, seriously, although bats look like evil creepy demonettes from hell that want to swoop down and bite us and give us rabies, the truth is that they are generally harmless flying mammals just like us who form colonies, care for their young, go to the mall, etc. Statistically, the average bat is far less likely to be rabid than Pat Buchanan.
--Besides catching insects, bats play a critical role in pollinating certain plants, such as the agave, without which there would be NO TEQUILA.
--Even vampire bats have their human side. Researcher Ted Fleming told me that sometimes a female vampire bat will return from a successful bloodsucking trip and share her good fortune by ''regurgitating to her roost mates.'' Awwwww.
--Many bat species are endangered because of humans, some of whom view bats as actual food. A researcher named Tom Kunz told me that in parts of Southeast Asia, bat soup and fried bat are considered tasty treats. In Guam, people have eaten pretty much all the bats. There's a bat shortage! You could become a bat rancher and get rich! Although you would need skilled bat wranglers.
--Kunz also told me that the Gubu people of Papua, New Guinea (I am not making the Gubu people up), have a big feast wherein they boil up a mess of bats, cook them over coals and then eat them whole, after which they pick little bat teeth out of their mouths. Kunz said that, as a researcher, he actually took a tiny bite of this dish.
Incredibly, he did not say that it tasted like chicken.
So we see that bats have really received a ''raw deal'' from us humans. I think that from now on, we should all remember that bats are our friends, and we should make every effort to be nice to them while remaining at a safe distance of, in my case anyway, 14 miles. Also, if we go to a restaurant in Southeast Asia, we should make darned sure we know what we are ordering.
(c) Dave Barry