Bat festival studies a species that used to be uncool

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Public perception of bats has slowly changed over the years, says Rob Mies, who has monitored the change since founding the Organization For Bat Conservation in 1992.

“In the early 1990s, I would say 80 percent, maybe 85 percent, of the people who would walk by a display that we had up would say, ‘Oh, gross!’… and wouldn’t even want to talk about bats,” Mies says. “Now it’s completely flipped. Eighty-five percent of the people now walk by and say, ‘Oh, cool! Bats!’ ”

Mies credits the shift to increased public education efforts nationwide, including his organization’s Great Lakes Bat Festival, which will mark its 14th year Saturday at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. Although the festival moves to a different Midwest venue each year, this will mark its fifth time at Cranbrook, which is the home base for the organization.

The event will include live demonstrations, games, activities for children and an opportunity for families to help build bat houses to be placed in national forests.

The festival also will feature returning special guest Janell Cannon, author and illustrator of the children’s book “Stellaluna.” The 1993 book about a mother fruit bat was featured on TV’s “Reading Rainbow” in 1994 and adapted into an animated movie in 2004.

“Stellaluna” was Cannon’s first book, written while she was working at a library. Fascinated by bats since childhood, she says she noticed there were no children’s picture books about bats at the time. She has since written other books about “misunderstood” animals such as snakes , but “Stellaluna” remains her best-known work.

“When children grow up having this affection for an animal in the environment they grow up in, as they mature into adults they will have a certain concern and care for the environment and those animals,” Cannon says.

Mies notes that the North American bat populations have been hit hard in recent years by white-nose syndrome, an often fatal condition caused by a fungus believed to have originated in Europe. The syndrome, which was found in Michigan bats last year, has killed millions of bats nationwide since its discovery in 2007, according to the National Wildlife Health Center.

Mies notes that bats are not only primary predators of a variety of insects, but also pollinators for many tropical plants including bananas and mangos.

Mies says he never expected to spend this much of his life working with bats.

“It’s just a species that we know so little about, so it’s going to take my lifetime and many more lifetimes to get to really understand bats,” he says.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

14th Annual Great Lakes Bat Festival

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

Cranbrook Institute of Science

39221 Woodward,

Bloomfield Hills

Tickets $15; includes admission to Cranbrook Institute of Science

(248) 645-3200