• A Big Bat at a Big Conference

    What do astronauts, musicians, inventors, photographers, mythbusters, magicians, aviators, archeologists, a 100 year-old cardiologist, Alan Turing experts, and a great big bat all have in common?

    EG Conference.

    It’s like sitting with a few hundred of your close friends watching a three-day marathon of ‘Nature,” “Quest,” and “Nova”…live. Sipping a glass of wine and touching 3-D printed artifacts. Artists, inventors, designers, educators, film makers, explorers. Imagine Oliver Steeds with clothes on. Asking questions, being inspired. Rubbing elbows with Jill Sobule and being able to ask Adam Savage about outtakes on “Mythbusters.” You might even get personal instruction on your new drone from Eric Cheng. EG Conference is a well-kept secret.

    “EG is an intimate annual conference of the most creative talents in our culture, makers and doers, sharing insight and drawing inspiration,” says their Twitter page. And if you have $4,000 for the ticket, you’ll become a follower, too.

    Rob Mies and Fred

    Rob Mies and Fred

    Front and center of this year’s conference (the ninth annual, and held in Monterey) was Fred. Fred is a Malayan Flying Fox, a member of the species known to be the biggest bats in the world.

    His handler, Rob Mies, is executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, based in Michigan, and he serves as advisor and member of many other bat- and conservation-oriented organizations. We met during the dinner break after Rob had given his talk and Fred was settling down in his cage with his bat friends.

    Mies pointed out that bats are extremely important to the lives of humans and other species on Earth because they pollinate crops like bananas and avocados, eat billions of insects, and spread seeds. But they’re not beautiful like butterflies and they don’t make honey like bees, so they tend not to get the attention bees and butterflies do. In fact, the unfortunate misunderstood bat is pretty far down on most lists of desirable neighbors, mostly because of bat myths.

    Even as we headed for a quiet corner to complete our interview, people came up to Rob and asked some of the usual questions: Don’t bats have rabies? (No, only about one percent contract rabies – and it kills them. You’re more likely, to the tune of 65,000 cases per year, to get rabies from a dog.) Are they blind? Won’t they get tangled up in your hair? (Bats are not blind. They fly at night and they use echolocation to navigate. They’re afraid of people and will not willingly approach humans. And they don’t build nests so they have no use for your hair.) What about vampire bats? (Yes, there are three species of the more than 1300 species of bat that will lick blood from cows and other animals. They live in Central and South America.)

    On a visit to Viet Nam, I was privileged to see trees full of Malayan flying foxes like Fred, hanging upside down, waiting for nightfall. Like Fred, their wiry hair is dark in color and they weigh just a few pounds. But their thin, leathery wings, which have claws at key spots, can spread to six feet. They’re not particularly friendly and they don’t bond with humans, but they are tolerant. The worst horror stories I heard there were about local children capturing the bats and prying their teeth out to make them into pets.

    Fred’s cage-mates on this trip to the EG Conference included a “big brown bat” which is not really very big at all. It has velvety hair and is about the size of a mouse, minus its wings. The paper-thin wings feel like a stretched balloon. Rob handles them all with thick gloves to keep them from accidentally scratching his hands and arms.

    Rob handles Fred at will because Fred came to the bat conservation team as a rescue – his wing was broken and he will never fly again. Fred has become an ambassador instead. He will live to the age of 20 or even 30.

    The conservation center has some 200 bats of many species which are all rescues. They do not breed bats at the facility.

    But like so many other beneficial animals, birds, and insects, bats are disappearing. The main reasons for the disappearance of bats are habitat loss, poisoning of their food, pesticides, and pollution. Bat mortalities are also found at nearly ever wind power facility site worldwide. Though it is estimated that insect-eating bats have saved farmers some billions in pesticide costs, those who continue to use pesticides are killing bats off. When bats eat insects exposed to pesticides, the poison is stored in their body fat. When the body fat is burned during migration (though not all bat species migrate), resins are released into the bloodstream and can cause illness or death. When the bats which eat insects are gone, how will the insects be controlled? Rob Mies answers his own question: Pesticides.

    A foreign invader has also attacked American bats, and it’s spreading at an alarming rate. White-nose syndrome is a fungus which attacks bats hibernating in cold caves. It is thought that it awakens the host bats before it’s time simply by annoying them, but the result is loss of strength and immunity. When they awaken, it’s still cold and there are no insects to eat so essentially the bats die of starvation.

    Rob urges people who want to help to buy or construct bat houses (which have very specific design needs). Bat houses will reduce the need for bats to roost in caves where they might contract white-nose syndrome. Leave “snags” standing as a roost for bats and many other species which search out dead trees as homes and food sources. Plant moth-attracting wildflower gardens to help attract bugs for the bats to eat. Garden organically without using pesticides. And donate to bat conservation causes. Rob mentioned the Pollinator Project, which is a 501 (c) 3, Burt’s Bees and Trader Joe’s as business partners in the effort to save the pollinators.

    Twenty-five years ago, as a biology student, he met a professor who had bats. He says he found out then how fascinating they are and it has been a lifelong career. Rob says he was excited to be asked to present at the EG Conference, not only for the chance for him and his wife to see Monterey and kayak in local waters, but to spread the gospel of bat conservation. Fred arrived via animal air cargo and could care less about kayaking. He will probably be happy to go back home to Michigan.

    With the plans to raze and then reconstruct the buildings at Portola Plaza, the EG Conference will likely not be in Monterey next year. Interested people can find video of dozens of the talks given over the years at http://www.the-eg.com. It is also available to follow on Facebook and on Twitter.

    To find out more about the Organization for Bat Conservation, see their web page at http://www.batconservation.org. It’s the one with the bat emoticon.

    You can watch Rob Mies’ presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5KYfTWYQic

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 17, 2015

    Topics: Front PG News, Green

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