Merlin’s History in Bat Conservation
When Merlin began studying gray bats the species was in such precipitous decline that leading experts were predicting extinction. He documented gray bat needs, educated cave owners and sport cavers to value and protect bats, single handedly gained a federal endangered species listing and led recovery efforts. Cavers were encouraged to become respected partners in progress. Today, as a direct result of Merlin’s combined research and positive approaches, there are millions more gray bats than when their extinction was predicted.
Merlin founded Bat Conservation International (BCI) at a time when bats had just been ranked between rattlesnakes and cockroaches in a national public opinion poll, and traditional conservation organizations were avoiding them as hopelessly unpopular. He hired a half-time assistant and led conservation efforts at night and on weekends from his office at the Milwaukee Public Museum where he held a full-time research position. Progress from his human-centered “like bats or not, we need them” approach dramatically exceeded expectations, forcing him to choose between his job as Curator of Mammals and the needs of BCI for full-time leadership.
In March 1986 Merlin resigned his position at the museum and moved to Austin, Texas to lead BCI full-time. His organization was supported by just a few hundred members, had less than $10,000 in the bank and friends and colleagues thought he had lost his mind in taking such a risk.
Moreover, Merlin had chosen Austin because it had become the world center for negative media stories about bats. A million and a half free-tailed bats had begun moving into newly created crevices beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, and health officials had warned they were rabid and dangerous. Scary media stories were running rampant and frightened citizens were signing petitions to have the bats eradicated. Nevertheless Merlin believed that this offered a golden opportunity to demonstrate that bats could be safe and highly beneficial neighbors.
He successfully recruited help from community leaders, the news media and even the health department, and within just five years Austin’s bridge bats had become one of the state’s most popular, multi-million-dollar tourist attractions. In the same period, despite the worst recession in Texas history, BCI went from being virtually penniless, with just Merlin and a staff of one, to owning its own two-million-dollar headquarters building and the world’s most important remaining bat cave. Staff had expanded to 17, supported by 12,000 members in 55 countries. But most importantly, clear and measurable progress had been made in reversing age-old negative attitudes as people learned how protecting bats benefits humans, countless partners began protecting millions of bats around the globe.
By the time Merlin retired from leadership in 2009, BCI had educated countless millions of people to a first-time appreciation of bat values. Hundreds of research and conservation projects essential to progress had been funded and long-term protection for thousands of key habitats had been gained. Protected sites included a national park in American Samoa and the most important remaining bat caves of North America, progress that would stand the test of time.
By retiring from leadership at BCI Merlin has allowed others to manage while opening new vistas of opportunity for his personal, frontline involvement. The part he loves most is personally promoting bats through his unparalleled combination of photography, lectures and writing, and serving as a mentor and fundraiser for students and home-grown conservation projects wherever they are most needed.
Public speaking highlights from this period included key-note addresses for the 15th International Bat Research Conference in Prague in 2010 and for the Discover Life in America Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2014. He also spoke at nine leading institutions in Brunei, Bulgaria, Cuba, Ecuador, Hong Kong and South Africa and served as Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Year of the Bat Campaign.
He authored a book chapter summarizing historic threats and future challenges for bat conservation (in Bat Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation, RA Adams and SC Pedersen, eds, 2013) and wrote a book titled The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2015). Finally, Merlin took more than 44,000 new photos of bats, some of which appeared in his article with Ralph Simon in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Growing needs for Merlin’s unique experience and connections in the world of conservation followed him into retirement from BCI, and soon he was working harder than ever. With a steady stream of requests for photos and advice found nowhere else, he was persuaded to found a new organization, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, in the summer of 2014.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is already providing access to thousands of National Geographic-quality bat photos, now in use by hundreds of educators and conservationists worldwide, as the foundation for exhibits and media stories reaching millions.
In April 2015, he was one of six plenary speakers for the Annual Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, co-chaired a special session on bats and taught a workshop on cave management for bats. He also spent two weeks assisting with bat conservation efforts in Thailand.
His new book, The Secret Lives of Bats, My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October 2015. Amazon selected it as one of its 10 Best Books of the month in non-fiction, and it gained top reviews in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, National Geographic and Nature.
In March 2016, Merlin provided workshop training in bat conservation and photography for participants from four countries through the Trinibats conservation organization in Trinidad. He also took more than 1,300 new photographs, especially featuring bats capturing insect pests and dispersing popular forest fruits. These formed the basis for a major pro-bat story in the island’s leading newspaper and are now in use worldwide, especially by Trinibats in their public education programs.
In July, Merlin spoke at Taiwan’s National Museum of Natural Science, The Endemic Species Research Institute of Taiwan and at the famous Formosan Golden Bats’ Home. During his visit Merlin also provided photo workshop training and took 1,900 new bat photos, including the first ones of Taiwanese bats capturing oriental leafworm moths, one of the most costly crop pests of Australasia. These photos are now available for use in public education in Taiwan and worldwide.
In October, Merlin provided the keynote address for the 46th Annual Symposium of the North American Society for Bat Research, held in San Antonio, Texas. He also provided the keynote address for the society’s Annual Teacher’s Workshop. And in November he was one of 30 environmental leaders invited to participate in a roundtable discussion of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, “On Care of Our Common Home,” at the Vatican. His presentation focused on how to win friends for even the least popular environmental causes.
In December, Merlin completed and submitted a 4,000-word invited manuscript on exaggerated claims of diseases in bats. Assuming acceptance, it will appear in a leading journal in the spring of 2017.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation has rapidly become the world leader in responding to exaggerated media stories attempting to link bats to rare but scary diseases from SARS to MERS and Ebola. Such stories are an unfortunate gold mine for headline-grabbing media readership and a bonanza for grants in support of otherwise unlikely-to-be-funded research. Without prompt, credibly documented challenges, these stories have enormous potential to reverse decades of bat conservation progress. People seldom help, and often kill, animals they fear.
Merlin wrote a powerful article, “Give Bats a Break” in the Spring 2017 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, published by the National Academy of Sciences for America’s leading policy makers in science, engineering, and medicine. He also reached an estimated 23 million readers in nine languages through Mongabay’s on-line article, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation.” Millions more were reached through his article, “Humans shouldn’t be so scared of bats,” in Slate.
Additionally, in defense of bats, Merlin was interviewed by the BBC, was featured in a very positive story that reached 600,000 Sierra subscribers, and was the primary source for another article in Newsweek.
Merlin’s lectures reached additional thousands, including epidemiologists and virologists at Brazil’s prestigious Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, he also provided the keynote address at the joint, 2017 meeting of Brazil’s Mammal and Bat Societies, composed of professional colleagues. His inaugural address at the 2017 joint meeting of the Biological Society and the Ecological Society of Chile reached the country’s leading biologists and ecologists.
Back in the U.S., Merlin provided the keynote address for the 2017 meeting of America’s Association of Medical Illustrators and the banquet lecture for the National Speleological Society’s annual meeting. Medical educators and cavers have special relevance to the future of bats.
Between trips, Merlin added more than 2,400 bat photos to the MTBC collection and supervised staff who scanned thousands more from his original slide collection. More than 100 of these were added to the MTBC Photo Gallery. In addition, Merlin directed a film crew to document the critical role of endangered nectar bats in pollinating the agave plants from which all of Mexico’s mescal and tequila are produced (a multi-billion-dollar annual value).
Finally, Merlin researched and authored eight new resource documents, addressing critical bat conservation needs, ranging from misinformation about diseases in bats, and new policies needed to help bats survive WNS, to reducing wind power kills and our dependence on toxic pesticides. These will now provide powerful tools to conservationists everywhere.