Merlin Tuttle’s memoir “The Secret Lives of Bats” is a testament to the author’s lifelong passion for a very misunderstood mammal.
‘The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures With the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals’
by Merlin Tuttle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $26
Merlin Tuttle was doubly blessed.
First, he discovered his life’s work while still a teenager.
Second, he had parents who encouraged his passion.
Tuttle loved bats.
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No, not Babe Ruth, point-to-center-field-and-hit-a-home-run bats. His interest was in Bela Lugosi straight-from-your-nightmare bats. It is a love affair he energetically describes in his memoir and bat advocacy book, “The Secret Lives of Bats.”
When Tuttle was 17, he convinced his father to accompany him down into a cave where the flying mammals were thought to roost. One of the first things young Merlin ascertained that afternoon was the “big difference between bat and rodent droppings.” Next he learned that if you stumble upon a small room filled with roosting bats and disturb them into flight, it’s best not to block their escape route. “They were crawling down my neck and into my shirt sleeves.”
He “soon realized that they meant no harm and were only seeking places to hide.” Had it been me, I know the two words I would have uttered: “Check, please!”
But Tuttle is far braver than I am. After earning academic credentials and doing appropriate field work, he landed a job as curator of mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum and founded Bat Conservation International, to “promote a positive image of bats and encourage their preservation.”
Over the last 40-plus years he has traveled the world as a kind of bat (some might say batty) Indiana Jones, having some adventures in the process.
Once he came face-to-face with a shotgun in the hands of an angry moonshiner, holed up in a cave Tuttle wanted to explore. He was surrounded by bandits armed with spears and bows and arrows in Kenya. He was mistaken for a drug smuggler by the DEA on a flight back to the U.S. from Mexico, and nearly attacked by a mountain lion while searching for bats in a national park.
Intellectually, most people know that bats are good. Some species eat destructive insects, reducing farmers’ needs for insecticides. A few pollinate plants, many of which have evolved special properties to attract bats. And some eat fruit and disperse seeds miles away in their guano, spreading new forests.
Still, it’s a struggle to fight misinformation and fear. He’s done it in part with his research and popular articles and photos (many included here) originally published in National Geographic magazine and elsewhere.
One of his great success stories occurred in Austin, Texas, where 1.5 million Brazilian free-tailed bats began to roost underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, near the state Capitol building. Fear mongering in local media created panic. Residents wanted the bats eliminated.
Tuttle traveled down, and after a public-relations effort with local civic leaders, the bats now are a tourist attraction generating $12 million for the local economy. On a typical summer night, hundreds of people line the bridge (and dozens more are in canoes and kayaks beneath it) to watch the bats leave their roosts for an evening of foraging.
Merlin performed his magic, just as he’s done with this book.