Tracking the federally threatened Northern long-eared bat across Sparta Mountain.

Tracking the federally threatened Northern long-eared bat across Sparta Mountain.

By Jared Flesher
director, The Creature Show

The second episode of The Creature Show is almost ready. It’s about bats and biologists.

When I was six years old, my best friend’s father was scratched by a bat in his attic. As a precaution—because some bats carry rabies—he received a series of extremely excruciating shots. It was about 500 shots, I recall, all into his stomach.

My second distinct memory of bats: I was 25 years old and living in a crumbly farmhouse, trying to chase a wayward bat out of the living room using a large bedsheet, all the time imagining half-a-thousand shots to the gut.

My third memory of bats came just a year ago, while visiting friends in Missouri, which is of course The Cave State. During a cave tour, the flashlight-wielding tour guide pointed out the solitary Northern long-eared bat perched on the cave’s ceiling. She said there used to be hundreds in that cave alone.

But this summer is when I came to actually know bats, at least a little. The Creature Show was privileged to follow two of New Jersey’s hardworking wildlife biologists, Mackenzie Hall and Stephanie Feigin, as they crisscrossed the state during their efforts to better understand—and ultimately conserve—New Jersey’s threatened bat populations.

For me, the summer of 2015’s most enduring memories will undoubtedly be filled with bats. In the forthcoming episode, you’ll see bats living in a dark church attic, and bats flying out over a beautiful graveyard at dusk, bats in a damp bat hibernaculum, and bat’s living comfortably, if not unusually, in a little boy’s bedroom window, squeaking at him if he leaves the lights on too long. I’m proud of the many creative wildlife shots The Creature Show was able to capture this summer, and for that we have not only our biologist friends to thank, but also several families who graciously shared their bats with us.

But for all the cool bats I saw this summer, I think the most striking moment was decidedly human. If you don’t know, Northern long-eared bats have declined by as much as 99 percent over the past decade, victims of an invasive fungus unwittingly transported to the United States by tourists. One mission of the bat biologists this summer was to try to discover if New Jersey actually has any Northern long-eared bats left to try to save.

On the first night I caught up with Mackenzie and Stephanie, they had already spent several weeks setting up mist nets at various sites in hopes of catching a Northern long-eared bat, often monitoring the nets until 2am. So far, the results were grim: a ton of work, but zero Northern long-eared bats to show for it. I told them don’t worry, I’m often good luck. About an hour later, I trailed behind in the darkness, camera rolling, as the biologists walked out to do yet another net check. And this time there was a bat in the net. ‘A little brown?’ someone guessed. Mackenzie and Stephanie worked carefully to untangle the tiny bat. It slowly and then suddenly dawned on them that the bat in their hands was not a little brown. It was the prodigal bat from the north with long ears.

If there is a word in English that describes such a moment—a complex burst of joy and relief upon the return of a feared-lost friend—I’m not sure I know it. But for a documentary filmmaker who chases not only bats but emotions, I was glad to share in it.

So that was fun. Telling the story of a species’ mass die-off is often not. I’ll be curious to hear from viewers whether they think The Creature Show was able to strike the right balance with this one.

I can also report back now with some personal experience about the viciousness of bats. I have stood in a church attic with bats flying past at nose level and perched overhead, I’ve done the same in a bat cave, and I have at moments shined my annoying light into their sensitive bat eyes. The truth is, they are delightful, curious and social creatures, and they have adorable faces. They never once went for my throat, and I didn’t lose an ounce of blood to their razor-sharp fangs. I get the feeling they just want to be free to live their bat lives in peace and good health. Like the rest of us.