"You're free to have whatever opinion you want, but at least have your opinion based on facts," replies Harvey Webster, director of wildlife resources for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and resident expert on the museum's new Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats exhibit. "We're trying to separate bat fact from bat fiction."
Bats -- the misunderstood villains of so much Hollywood schlock -- make up roughly a quarter of the earth's mammal population, represent the only mammals to have truly mastered flight, and could more accurately be described as large, pollinating bees than the common concept of "rabid mice with wings."
"With any wild mammal, there's always a risk of rabies," Webster explains. "We shouldn't single out [bats] as this extraordinarily dangerous specter." Changing the image of the animals is exactly the point of the exhibit.
Masters of the Night sucks you into this new way of thinking by preying upon the old myth-conceptions about bats. The entrance to the display is a bat's view of a Gothic castle -- from its perch, hanging upside down, near the rafters -- complete with a knight in armor, fireplace, and even a cat chasing a rat, all on the "floor" above. But then, through interactive displays of everything from bat habitats to how they "see" with their ears, we come to learn that bats really are misunderstood.
"Really, they're of a different dimension than we are. Everything about them is designed for exploiting the shadows of the night," says Webster. Unfortunately, the bronze busts of bats that illustrate this point also reinforce how monstrous some appear, with their uniquely adapted features.
Most of the creatures feed on insects -- our local Ohio hero, the Little Brown Bat, can consume up to 1,200 mosquitos an hour. They also eat the fruit and nectar of plants, which they pollinate and spread the seeds of in the process. Even the much-maligned vampire bat offers therapy for heart patients, in the form of an anticoagulant found in its saliva.
"The [bats] around here are the ultimate bug-whackers," Webster says with a smile. "We're creatures of daylight, and they're creatures of night . . . but just as long as people leave thinking bats are cool."
Point taken, and mission accomplished. -- Powers