Blindflight - The Natural City
The Village Voice
August 27, 1979


Consider the bat. Not the Louisville Slugger or the aluminum, but the winged one. The one that gets tangled in your ‘do, likes an occasional after-dinner drink, is blind as itself, and commits countless other mythological sins. The truth of the matter is that bats see as well as any competent minor-league umpire, show no preference for perms, and do the Draculian thing nowhere north of Texas. But bats have gotten bad press ever since witches went out of fashion. Fulsome little creature, that Fledermaus. Really loathsome. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

And, needing only a cubic inch or two of space in which to live, well suited for big-city life. It surprises few folks that for every human being in New York City, there are two dirty rats (that is, two rats of the non-human variety). Rats are respectable urbanites. But now comes word from Cosmo Barbetto, senior keeper at the Bronx Zoo’s “World of Darkness,” that each citizen, like it or not, has his own compliment of two bats. “At the very end of the summer, before most of them hibernate or migrate south for the winter, there are 16 million bats in New York City, ” quoth Cosmo.

Just where do 16 million bats hang out? Anywhere dark—depending on the inclination of the particular species (six of 847 types frequent New York) and the availability of hangable space. Royal roosts include abandoned buildings, elevator shafts, parking garages, attics, docks and wharves, storm sewers, building crevices, steamy subway tunnels, burial vaults, shutter backs, and ship hulls. For those bats who want to rough it, tree hollows and nooks behind pieces of loose bark on trunks are ways to put a little country in their citified lives. There are even bats who unwittingly live a clichéd existence, residing in church belfries.

After a lazy day lounging around the crib, the bats head out when they sun goes down: Miller Time, time to go for the best tasting insects around. All the bats in the city are members of the Vespertilionidae family, a clan of small-bodied (8″ wingspan, max) insectivorous species such as the Little Brown, the Hoary, the Big Brown, the Silver-Haired, and the Red Bat. They use an ultrasonic echo-location radar system to steer clear of all nondigestible objects, tracking down those mosquitoes and moths with a vengeance; bats can eat their weight in insects in a single night. (Some can also carry the equivalent of their own weight in flight, which led the Pentagon to initiate “Project X-Ray,” a World War II plan to equip bats with small, time-delayed incendiary bombs that would explode after the bats had found shelter inside enemy lines. The plan fizzled in 1944 when armed bats slipped past their Marine guards and roosted in the project headquarters, setting it aflame.)

If a bat swoops towards you for the hell of it, don’t panic—it will turn away once it realizes you are not a gnat. Unless of course the bat is rabid, in which case it knows not what it does and might take a flick at your flesh. The chance of this happening to you are Skylabian—less than two percent of NYC’s bats are rabid and even they won’t attack without provocation but once in a full moon, so you needn’t follow the lead of the more fearful among us who are given to beating errant bats with brooms, whacking them with tennis rackets, spearing them with rakes, shooting them with BB guns, flushing them down toilets, and dousing them with kerosene. Let the bat fly out of a window instead. It’s easier.

However, if the bat has designs on your home or apartment as a place of food or shelter, call the ASPCA (369-3520) and they’ll retrieve it. (Sad to say, the Health Department’s fearless “Bat Squad,” led by Sukey The Bat Girl, is now defunct.) If, by chance, you are one of the few New Yorkers bitten each year, wash the wound and attempt to save the animal—handling only with gloves or a heavy cloth—and call the Health Department (566-7105). If the bat expires, toss it in the fridge. The Health people will run a test on the animal’s tiny brain to make sure it’s not rabid, which will probably save you three weeks of abdomen-jabbing immunization. Bats, which have been the only confirmed rabies carriers in the city the last twenty years, can pass along rabies to you or your pets without a single chomp. The virus may be spread if the animal’s saliva enters a cut, a scratch, or abrasion. At close contact, it can even be inhaled.

A word of advice to the hyperparanoid prospective pet owner: bat/cat encounters tend to be more frequent than bat/dog squabbles. A word of advice to the hyperparanoid apartment shopper: based on reported sightings, Manhattan is considered the most bat-congested borough, with Brooklyn placing a distant second; the Bronx, third; Queens, fourth; and Staten Island, an almost batless fifth. And finally, a word of warning to all those worried about being bitten: your greatest enemy is sitting right next to you. While less than ten bat bites are reported each year, there are at least 800 reports given to the Health Department of people biting other people.