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3 july 2018

I don't ever remember being afraid of bats, though I've never been stuck in an attic with one. You might want to check back if that ever happens.

Whenever I've encountered bats, though, I've been totally charmed. I used to live near a Texas creek that had been dammed to create a small lake – I lived near enough to throw a baseball into the lake, but not near enough to see it, because the developers had created a jealous ring of homes around the waterfront. The proximity of water meant that numerous bats roosted in the neighborhood trees. Bats have to live near water – I'm not sure whether they need water directly, or whether water supports the insects they live on, perhaps both. In any case, you could sit on my front lawn at night and watch the bats take wing, fluttering reassuringly around as a kind of furry mosquito-removal service.

I was never worried about bats landing in my hair – for one thing, I don't have enough hair for anything to tangle itself. Mostly, I respected the fantastic flying skills of the little mammals. Unlike birds – for instance, the woodpecker that brained itself against our picture window the other day – bats never hit anything. In her new book Bat, Tessa Laird says that there are no recorded instances of bats ever getting tangled in anyone's hair. If a bat touches you, it's because he's your pet.

At least in North America. Vampire bats are real South American creatures. Laird goes back and forth a little on whether vampire bats are no more noisome than overgrown mosquitoes, or whether they can inflict serious depradations on livestock. Apparently vampire bats are little guys who drink no more than a tablespoon of blood at a go. This is fine; a cow doesn't need any particular tablespoon of blood; but get a few dozen bats together for dinner and even a large animal is going to feel a bit woozy.

The horror of the vampire bat has been amplified by the echo chamber of Hollywood. Laird shows that premodern European vampires were associated primarily with wolves, sometimes with rats. At the same time, the vampire bat was unknown to Western science till the 19th century. The wolf/rat/vampire connection persisted right through Bram Stoker's Dracula and even the classic 1931 film with Bela Lugosi: the Count's cape made him look vaguely batlike, but the bat wasn't his go-to totem.

Laird suspects that a subsequent sorting of pop-culture monsters more strictly into werewolves and vampires led to the present-day association of vampires (the Twilight kind) with bats. This connection has been to the detriment of real bats. The worst thing our common Texas bat can do is poop on you, and even that's unlikely unless you venture into caves that hold thousands of bats. But people are convinced that bats are swarming around eager to get into our hair and drink our blood, so they engage in all kinds of bat-suppression.

Friends of bats have counter-mobilized. The bats on the Congress Bridge in Austin have become an urban icon, and Bat Conservation International has raised money to protect many important bat-habitats, including the exceptional Bracken Cave near San Antonio. I haven't been to Bracken, but I have seen the bat-exodus from Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, and I will say that if you witness one of these crepuscular sorties, you will become a bat-fan for life.

Holy Bat-terms, Batman – would any book on bats be complete without the Caped Crusader? Laird devotes a considerable section to the evolution of Batman. In his original comic-book and campy 1960s incarnations, Batman himself didn't have too much to do with bats, again aside from that batty cape. Not till the 2005 Christopher Nolan reboot Batman Begins did we see a Bruce Wayne heavily invested in bats, attracted half to their powers and half to their horrors.

Across world cultures, people have tended to emphasize the horror of bats. Only in Asia is the symbolism reversed. An accident of phonology makes one Chinese word for "bat" a homophone of one for "luck," thus making images of bats iconic for good fortune. By visual association, bats are also lucky in Japan. Almost everywhere else they give people the creeps, and in Christendom they have been downright Satanic.

Laird, a distinguished art critic, includes a fine chapter on bats in contemporary world art, especially in Samoa, another culture where bats are powerfully totemic. Bats are sexualized in Samoan iconography, quite positively at times, which seems odd to us. Aside from their ghoulish associations with the vampiric "kiss," most Westerners don't think of bats as very sexy. And indeed bats are quite unlike other little mammals such as mice or rabbits. Bats reproduce slowly, with long gestational periods. A pair of mice allowed to reproduce under optimal conditions, expert Merlin Tuttle says, will yield a million mice within a year. A pair of bats will yield three – two of them the original parents (128). This lack of fecundity seems odd for creatures that sometimes roost by the million. But bats are very long-lived, routinely reaching ages of 20 or 30. Their slow reproductive pace is another reason for conservationists to fear.

With litters averaging one, bats have two teats. Laird mentions that Linnaeus believed that only bats, primates and elephants, among the mammals, had two teats (14) – but so do horses, goats, and sheep, among other mammals that tend to give birth to one offspring at a time. This factoid about bat breasts conveys the charm of Laird's book, which informs and enlightens while still finding lots of time for the offbeat. One of the odder items in Bat is the story of the Bat Bomb, a tale nobody would believe if it were fictional. During the second world war, the U.S. government authorized a project that aimed at turning bats into weapons of mass destruction. Bats carrying little napalm backpacks, the idea went, could be released above Japanese cities and set them aflame. The Bat Bomb sort of worked – at least the bats were able to burn down an airbase in Carlsbad. But their tendency to turn on their tormenters made them unsuitable for weaponizing, and the U.S. turned its attention instead to atomic weapons.

Laird, Tessa. Bat. London: Reaktion, 2018.