Gerri Griswold has “a passion for bats.” Known as “the Bat Lady of Connecticut,” Griswold has made it her mission to rehabilitate bats in her home and to educate the public about our misconceptions toward them.
“There has never been a more misunderstood, maligned and persecuted animal on this planet,” she says as she sits in her office at the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, where she directs administration and development. “They’re persecuted just out of ignorance.”
Where would we be without bats? “There isn’t an animal in the world that impacts our lives more on a daily basis than the bat,” Griswold says. “They are the No. 1 controller of night-flying insects. And they are pollinators. You have mangoes because of bats. They are why we have cashew nuts, figs and dates.”
She notes that bats also are key to the existence of agave tequilana, a Mexican plant. “That’s where we get tequila. So if it wasn’t for bats, you wouldn’t have a drop of tequila!”
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“They’re also seed dispersers. They eat the fruit, then they fly, poop and plant seeds. Bat poop (guano) is the most expensive fertilizer in the world. Bats are rain forest allies.”
Griswold adds, “Our planet could not survive without them. But they’re still totally misunderstood.”
When I raise the subject of the Dracula novel and movies and vampire folklore, Griswold gives me an “oh, pooh!” wave of her hands. “Spend one hour with a bat and you won’t be thinking about that anymore. But it’s the rabies talk that bugs me a lot more than Dracula. People think all bats are rabid because the public is not educated about it.
“The bat is not considered a high rabies risk in Connecticut,” she says. “Only one-half of 1 percent of them have rabies.” Of the thousands of bats she’s handled, only one has tested positive for rabies. But Griswold admits “you don’t want to play games with rabies. If a bat is flying around your kid’s room, you should probably have it tested. That’s not what I believe but that’s what some doctors or biologists might say. I think a flying bat is not a sick bat. In my opinion, a rabid bat will be on the ground.”
The bottom line, she says: “We should appreciate wildlife without touching the animal. That’s potentially dangerous. And if you have any question of exposure, call your doctor or vet.”
Griswold wants people to realize this: “You will never have a bat chase at you. They’re not swooping down onto you. They only care about insects. They eat a thousand insects in one hour. But they’re so non-aggressive [toward humans]. Bats are lazy. They spend all their time getting food. They just want to eat.”
Griswold pulls out a case with a furry creature about the size of a mouse. “This is my silver-haired bat. He’s the cutest little guy.”
The bat is barely moving and would remain low energy throughout my visit. “Most bats are pretty laid back this time of year (mid-January). At my home they go into torpor, a half-hibernation. They don’t eat, which means less work for me. His eyes are pretty much closed.”
She reaches into the case and picks the bat up by the scruff of his neck; instantly he spreads his wings. “See, there’s something wrong with his wings; they’re blunt at the end. That’s why I feel he can’t be released.”
When I note she is handling the bat with her bare hands, Griswold says, “Oh God yes, I do that all the time. It’s easier than with gloves. But that’s something I’ve developed. It’s not recommended for most people. You’ll get bitten.”
She named the bat Phil, “after Phil Silvers, the comedian.”
Found in a Branford basement, Phil is a member of a “species of concern” in Connecticut, she says. “Seven of our eight bat species in Connecticut are in big, big trouble,” Griswold says. “They are threatened or endangered.”
The prime menace is white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed about 7 million bats in the U.S. and Canada since arriving in upstate New York in 2006. The disease has since spread to 33 states.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has listed the silver-haired bat, the red bat and the hoary bat as being of “special concern,” meaning their populations have become very low. The “endangered” bat species in Connecticut are the Indiana bat, the tri-colored, the little brown bat and the Northern long-eared bat.
“We’re hoping the little brown bats won’t become extinct,” Griswold says. “But the tri-colored and Northern long-eared almost certainly will become extinct.”
Griswold also wants us to know that bats are “super intelligent, charming and gentle. If you take care of one in rehab, it behaves like a dog or cat. You open up a cage and they fly onto your collar. I’ve had bats that won’t leave my side. They’re very affectionate; they know who you are. To know them is to love them.”
But she warns: “They do not make good pets. They’re wild animals. In Connecticut it’s illegal to keep wildlife as pets.”
Griswold is a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator; she makes full use of this at the family farm in Winchester where she lives and where she grew up. “I’ve raised hundreds of orphans. I only have nine now at my home. I’ve had up to 20.”
“I love the unloved,” says Griswold, who also works with porcupines. “I feel very strongly about helping things that people don’t understand.”
In order to spread the word about the greatness of bats, Griswold gives public talks, accompanied by one or two of her favorites, perched on her collar or shoulder. “I get so high talking about these animals and bringing them out to the public. I get jazzed talking about bats!”
She adds, “I like empowering a child with information. Children are powerful advocates for these animals. They appreciate them, no matter how they look. I hear them say, ‘Mom, don’t be afraid anymore.’ ”
To reach Griswold about delivering a talk, email her at email@example.com