Women in Bat Conservation: Susan Wallace
Women in Bat Conservation: Susan Wallace
Name: Susan Wallace
Organization: The Woodtiger Fund
Female Conservation Hero: Rachel Carson
What is your focus in bat conservation?
I fund bat conservation, especially through research. My goal is that there should be NO MORE EXTINCTIONS, so it is necessary to identify those bat species that are most at risk. I’ve been supporting university research on white-nose syndrome. I have lately been drawn to fruit bats. I first learned about them as a child, so they’ve always been with me in a way. The tales you are told as a child can ignite future interests and work. My father told me stories about the “flying foxes” of the Philippines that he saw there during WWII. His stories of these enormous bats with wingspans of six feet flying overhead at dusk in the tropics thrilled me. The Americans stationed there had never seen anything like them before. Flying foxes are now threatened by loss of habitat and even consumption by humans or extreme weather. Fruit bats have the most endearing faces with large, expressive eyes. The faces of flying foxes do resemble foxes or perhaps even some puppies you have known! These huge flying mammals are at one end of the size spectrum for bats. The smallest bats weigh less than a penny!
How have you been involved with Bat Conservation International?
I’ve been serving on the board of Bat Conservation International for several years. Some of my best times ever have been spent with BCI’s bat biologists and fellow board members on field trips to places like Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
What is the most amazing thing you have learnt about bats?
How exquisite they are. Bats are associated with dark myths and Halloween, but the truth is, they are beautiful creatures. I love their faces. I have learned so much about their incredible diversity through studying them up close and I now understand the importance of their role in the ecosystem. I wish bats were better understood and that more children could learn about how necessary and fascinating they are.
What is the most satisfying part of your involvement with bat conservation?
I love bats. I have been interested in them since childhood. I’m not a wildlife biologist—I’m a conservationist and funder, so being able to join bat biologists on occasion and mist net bats at dusk and examine bats with the scientific experts, who handle them so tenderly, is both a privilege and a rarefied experience. It is remarkable to see the only flying mammal up close and notice the diversity between the bat species and appreciate how beautifully bats are formed. Their faces are expressive. At the Southwest Research Station in Arizona I had a haughty little red bat stare me down while she was being assessed. She was quite put out by the gentle procedure and it’s good I was wearing two layers of gloves.
Bats are endlessly fascinating to me. Bat wings are so silken and delicate and some of them seem almost sheer with a network of delicate lacey veins. When thousands upon thousands of Mexican free tail bats emerge at dusk from BCI’s Bracken Cave, it is the experience of a lifetime and a wonder of the natural world. BCI has worked hard to protect Bracken Cave. When I visited during the peak season for bat emergence, the sound of thousands of bat wings beating as they begin their nightly expedition was almost soporific—so calming. It’s a nearly silent thrumming, but it is just audible and so thrilling to the senses as you watch the vast community of little bats unfurling their way out of the cave and forming a ribbon across the sky as they vanish in the distance on their nightly journey. At dawn, they return in formation dive straight down and quickly turn parallel to the earth and disappear into the blackness of Bracken Cave to sleep for the duration of the day.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get involved in bat conservation?
If you can connect with a local bat group and go on a bat walk, ask if you can experience using a bat detector. It’s a device that looks like a remote control and it picks up the echolocation and social frequencies of bats and helps to identify those that are flying overhead. By using a bat detector, I was able to identify some endangered bats overseas and help ensure that their roosts and browsing areas were protected. That was in the EU and they have good protections in place for bats.
Find a local bat group and go on bat walks. Try to educate people you know not to fear bats and explain that they should not be interfering with bats or handling them, but protecting them, as they are very necessary to the ecosystem. Get a bat house if you can! If you can tag along with a bat biologist and see some bats up close, I guarantee you will be hooked and you will find a way to become truly involved.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art and received a BFA in painting. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school and got my degree in folklore. Folklore is useful in conservation, because all species have stories or myths surrounding them that vary among habitats and communities. If you learn the stories from those living in communities in isolated areas, you may be able to use that information in an historical way or as a way to forge connections that will encourage protecting bats. Most people know very little that’s scientific about bats. Listening to their stories is a way to engage and facilitate friendly collaboration and learning. BCI is quite good at working with local people.
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