Six weeks ago, overnight, about 270 bats decided to take up residence at the Columbia City home of Brenda Matter and Bruce Crowley.
Yes, it was a disconcerting sight.
Every evening, 270 bats come streaming out of the attic of the two-story, century-old Victorian home so they can forage.
It’s a warm, cozy, protected attic with just the right size gaps as entrances. A perfect bat home.
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Something like this had never happened in the 28 years the couple has lived there.
“It was,” says Crowley, “hard to believe.”
Luckily for these little creatures, Matter and Crowley didn’t immediately call a pest-removal service.
They could have. Bats are protected, but not when found in dwellings.
“I wasn’t really scared, more curious,” says Crowley. “Growing up on Capitol Hill, you used to see garter snakes everywhere in gardens. We don’t have poisonous snakes here, so I’m not afraid of them, either.”
Bats for centuries have suffered from lousy public relations. A few examples:
In the drawings for Dante’s “Inferno,” a gruesome Satan is shown with giant bat wings. You act unstable, and get called “batty.” Even a superhero like Batman is portrayed as a moody Dark Knight. For some people, bats are filthy, bloodsucking, ugly flying vampires that carry rabies. “Flying rats” are what some call them.
But bats are real protectors of the environment, say advocates such as Bats Northwest.
The ones in the Northwest eat insects, and if not for them we’d be overrun by moths, flies and mosquitoes. Plus, bat guano makes great fertilizer.
Matter and Crowley are truly your prototypical nice-type Seattleites. After some research, they decided to do the right thing by the bats and made them a neighborhood attraction, putting out lawn “bat-watching chairs” on the sidewalk in front of their home in the 3900 block of South Ferdinand Street.
On a recent night, 16 kids and adults gathered at dusk to watch the nightly bat excursion.
It wasn’t IMAX-type excitement. The attic is what, 25 feet above ground, and the bats are small, each weighing a third of an ounce.
The bats also don’t fly out all at once, so no Alfred Hitchcock “The Birds”-type visuals. Just a handful at a time.
As Romi Silverman, 9, who lives next door, says, “It’s just, like, cool.”
It’s the kids who sit nightly and have counted 270 bats, which takes considerably more patience than some of the adults have after standing around for 15 minutes watching the flitting creatures.
Doing all this for the bats will cost Matter and Crowley at least $610, probably more, and a bunch of their time.
They don’t mind.
“With the nightly gatherings, and meeting all the neighborhood, the whole thing will have the sort of memory load that comes with an exotic vacation. But the costs should be only a fraction of what a vacation like that would cost,” says the couple in an email.
The couple have spent $260 for rabies shots. Without their health coverage, they say, the price would have been $1,500.
They decided to get the series of shots when one night, a bat made a wrong turn and, instead of going outside, began flying all over the upstairs. Crowley finally caught it with a canning jar.
You never know when there might be a next encounter, with maybe a scratch or bite from a scared bat, and a tiny percentage of them do carry rabies.
The state’s Department of Health says that fewer than 1 percent of bats have rabies, and only 5 to 10 percent of sick, injured or dead bats tested had rabies. Don’t handle bats, says the agency, and the odds of contracting rabies are “extremely small.”
The state recommends sealing up attics where bats take up residence. A contractor contacted by the couple estimated that would cost at least $350, if “it’s an easy job.”
The job entails putting screen around the attic, with the screen funneled so that once the bats leave, they can’t come back in.
Matter and Crowley will wait until September for that work.
That’s because the bats right now have pups, and the pups are staying in the attic because they can’t yet fly.
Matter and Crowley also have crawled around the attic to cover their belongings in plastic to protect them from bat excrement. They’ll also themselves be replacing the insulation, where the bats likely are nesting.
Then, to give the bats a new home, Matter and Crowley are putting up a bat house — which looks like a stretched-out birdhouse — on a 12-foot pole.
Michelle Noe, president of Bats Northwest, joined the crowd outside the home on that recent night.
She’s 32 and became a bat enthusiast while getting her degree at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources and itemizing the species on the Olympic Peninsula.
It turns out the Northwest has some 15 kinds of bats, with the most common aptly named the “little brown bat.”
Noe guessed that’s the kind that took up residence at the home of Matter and Crowley.
“Bats have been inhabiting the night’s skies for over 50 million years, while the rest of us mammals have mostly stuck to the ground or trees,” she says.
She preaches about bat myths, such as bats being vampires.
Vampire bats do exist, but only in the tropics, and they make up only three of the more than 1,200 species of bats.
Plus, they don’t suck blood, but just make a cut with their teeth in large mammals like cattle and lap up the blood.
Meanwhile, the nightly viewings continue at the home of Matter and Crowley.
“I was thinking today about why we are happy about the bats,” says Matter. “The bats need to go somewhere, and they think our house is a natural feature in the landscape. That feels pretty cool to us.”
Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @ErikLacitis