DESTINY ALEXANDER / NEXTGENRADIO
Kevin Vu speaks with bat rehabilitator Dianne Odegard. During the 2021 winter storms, she and her husband saved hundreds of freezing bats. Odegard says bats are an important part of the ecosystem, and that extreme temperatures related to climate change put them at risk.
This Texan wants to protect bats from climate change and human activity
Click here for audio transcript
When I was maybe four or five years old. I remember seeing a bat. But I saw it, I think, with moonlight in back so that it looked like a flying bat skeleton. But that was my first experience. It wasn’t necessarily a positive one. And yet I think it gave me a little bit of an interest going forward, uh, in what bats might be like.
I’m Dianne Odegard, and I’m the executive director of Austin Bat Refuge.
Most days we’ll get 2 to 3 calls about bat situations.
(Congress Avenue Bridge sound of crowd and bats)
Apparently all across the world, people were learning about the Congress Avenue Bridge and that bats were moving into this bridge in the early eighties, after they started widening the bridge.
And at the time, there was really very little easily accessed information about bats. So people originally just thought, well, they’re just going to give us diseases.
Bats in the United States, the vast majority of them are insect eaters.
(Bat eating insect sound)
So climate change can affect the migration patterns of the insects that they eat.
At Congress Avenue Bridge, we see the people who gather to watch the bats always get a better show, so to speak, when the bats come out in daylight. But the truth is, it’s a lot more dangerous for them to come out in daylight because some of the daytime predators are still around.
But they have to come out and go farther to find enough insects because of the drought.
(Bat noises – Dianne talking to a bat in her care)
We had gotten through the freeze here, luckily, without losing power.
So when it started to warm up, we started getting calls from people who were out on the trails that there were multiple, tens of thousands of bats in some areas underneath bridges.
And so people were just literally sweeping bats into large cardboard boxes, not knowing for sure if they were dead or alive. At one point, we had three or four large cardboard boxes that were just piled high with dead and dying and some living bats.
Rehydrate feed, rehydrate feed, rehydrate feed.
(Bat eating sounds)
That’s what we did for the whole next week and longer.
And it was insanity around here. We got very little sleep, but we really, really wanted to save as many bats as we possibly could.
Oh, it was um, it was heartbreaking.
It was the first time in our experience. Um, and my understanding is that it’s the first time anything like that has has ever happened in Austin, in in Texas, this kind of cold.
And without the public um, jumping in and helping us like that, it would have been almost impossible to do what we were able to do.
So it seems like people have become aware of why bats matter in ways that they just, they just weren’t 20 years ago.
They’re just super cool animals and uh having them in our environment is not dangerous as long as we don’t, as my husband says, as long as we don’t put our finger in a bat’s mouth. They are a good, safe neighbor. And they are eating hundreds of species of insects. So I rest my case.
Disease-spreading, blood-sucking, nocturnal creatures. Bats have long been the stuff of horror stories and nightmares.
“One of the things that makes people fear them is that they are nighttime animals; people rarely see them,” Dianne Odegard, Austin Bat Refuge co-founder, says.
Dianne Odegard holds Sabal, a northern yellow bat, with a bright smile on her face Sept. 5, 2022.
KEVIN VU / NEXTGENRADIO
Even Austin’s popular Congress Avenue Bridge bat colony was at first misunderstood, she says. The animals began moving in during the early 1980s after the bridge was widened – “unknowingly creating a wonderful bat roost underneath.”
“People in Austin were very upset about this at first,” Odegard says. “It was not something that they took on as an interesting feature of Austin the way people look at it now. They thought it was going to be a public health crisis.”
But Odegard sees bats differently. She and her husband, Lee Mackenzie, have dedicated the last several years of their lives to educating the public about what Odegard calls these beautiful and fascinating creatures. As the only bat rehabilitators for many miles around, they also nurture Central Texas bats back to health.
But Odegard says climate change and human activity could make their job much harder. She says people need to recognize how what they do affects bats and why that matters.
“We’ve shared our buildings and our caves and our wherever we’ve lived with bats from the beginning of our time on this planet,” Odegard says. “They’re fascinating and diverse in ways that, you know, are just almost unbelievable when you start studying them.”
At left, Harley the eastern red bat holds on to the flight cage at Austin Bat Rescue. At right, Sabal drinks water through a syringe to rehydrate.
KEVIN VU / NEXTGENRADIO
Becoming a bat rehabilitator
Odegard says her first experience with a bat was in a Minnesota cabin. She recalls being about 5 or 6 – and being scared but awestruck.
“I saw it, I think, with moonlight in back of the bat so that it looked like a flying bat skeleton,” she says. “But that was my first experience. It wasn’t necessarily a positive one, and yet I have retained that image in my mind, and it’s kind of a glorious image and an unusual picture.”
Odegard says she always loved animals growing up. In the 1990s, she jumped at an opportunity to become a wildlife rehabilitator in Austin, building cages and taking care of raccoons and possums.
“Well, we fell in love with them,” Odegard says. “At that point, we realized that this was something that we were going to want to do, probably for the long term.”
Odegard worked with BCI for more than 12 years before creating Austin Bat Refuge, which focuses squarely on education and rehabilitation.
“Most days we’ll get two to three calls about bat situations,” she says. “Often a bat on the ground, someone wants to know what to do.”
But she says she’s never experienced a situation like she did in February 2021.
Lee Mackenzie, co-founder of Austin Bat Refuge, observes a radar loop showing how bats are interacting with weather on Sept. 5, 2022.
KEVIN VU / NEXTGENRADIO
‘It was heartbreaking’
Millions of Texans lost power and water for days, and temperatures dropped to as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first day the weather began warming up, Odegard says, she immediately started receiving calls from Austinites and even Texas Parks and Wildlife about dead and dying bats. People were finding them underneath different Austin bridges – not just the Congress Avenue Bridge but also the McNeil Bridge and Round Rock Bridge.
“People were just literally sweeping bats into large cardboard boxes, not knowing for sure if they were dead or alive, and bringing them to us,” Odegard says. “We had three or four large boxes that were just piled high with dead and dying – and some living – bats.”
Rehydrate, feed, rehydrate, feed, rehydrate, feed. That’s what we did for that whole next week and longer.
Odegard says she and her husband worked day and night taking care of them in their backyard.
She says they took in up to 6,000 bats over those days and saved at least 500. Texas Parks and Wildlife reported the winter storm killed over 30,000 bats throughout the state.
Odegard says it was grueling.
“Rehydrate, feed, rehydrate, feed, rehydrate, feed. That’s what we did for that whole next week and longer,” she says. “It was insanity around here. We got very little sleep, but we really wanted to save as many bats as we possibly could. It was such – it was heartbreaking.”
Odegard turned to social media, asking people to donate syringes and paper towels for the bats. She says the response was one she never expected.
“This whole living room was filled almost to the ceiling with boxes,” she says. “Our carport was full, our living room was full, just piled up on top.”
Odegard says they still have unopened boxes a year and a half later. For her, the generosity from the Austin community and beyond shows how much the area’s bats are appreciated now.
“Without the public jumping in and helping us like that, it would’ve been impossible to do what we were able to do,” Odegard says. “It seems like people have become aware of why bats matter in ways that they just weren’t 20 years ago.”
Dianne Odegard and her husband, Lee Mackenzie, stand inside the flight cage where they take care of the bats. Above them is a tree that some bats use as a habitat.
KEVIN VU / NEXTGENRADIO
The beauty of bats
Odegard wants people to recognize bats are special and worth protecting.
“It’s really exciting for us to be able to show… people how amazing they are and how beautiful and just plain cute they are,” she says.
But beyond that, she says, bats play important roles in the ecosystem. Many eat insects that would otherwise decimate crops, and some are pollinators.
“Having them in our environment is not dangerous … as my husband says, as long as we don’t put our fingers in a bat’s mouth,” Odegard says.
For those who are still fearful, she notes that over the past 30 to 40 years there have been no documented cases of a human getting a disease from one of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats.
“They are a good neighbor, they are a good safe neighbor, and they are eating hundreds of species of insects,” Odegard says. “And so, I rest my case.”