RIDGECREST, Calif. — Patricia Brown-Berry has dedicated her life to turning around people's attitude toward bats.
"Bats have a bad rap. There are many myths and fears about bats that are totally untrue. Exterminating bats is big business for pesticide companies in this country," she said.
Known to many as the "Bat Lady," Brown-Berry, 45, is an internationally renowned bat advocate, bat biologist, bat behaviorologist and bat communication expert.
She has been fascinated by and working with bats since she received her doctorate in neurophysiology at UCLA in 1973.
"Bats are vital to the well-being of mankind. They enrich the whole biomass, are an integral part of the ecosystem. Bats are nature's way of controlling mosquitoes, moths and other insects. Bats pollinate half the fruit in the tropics, fruit like bananas, papayas, mangoes, avocados," she said.
Brown-Berry travels the world to study bats and has followed them all over North America, as well as in Japan, Australia, Europe, the Mideast, Mexico and Central and South Americas.
"Bats are said to have rabies, to carry diseases. There are only 10 cases of people getting rabies from bats in all of the U.S. public health records. Household pets are rabid in much greater numbers than bats," Brown-Berry said.
"Bats are no Typhoid Marys. They are a minuscule health hazard. Yet pesticide companies make millions every year wiping out bats whose populations are in great decline because of chemical poisoning."
Brown-Berry has written numerous scientific papers on the biology of bats, especially on vocal communication and echolocation. It is her research on various species of bats--there are about 1,000 species on Earth, 24 recorded in California--that has taken her around the world.
Through scientific grants from the National Science Foundation, National Geographic and other agencies and organizations, she has studied bats in ancient Egyptian tombs and bats with enormously long claws and feet that gaff fish in the waters off Panama.
"We're just beginning to understand bat sensory systems. Bats are dolphin-like, with extraordinary navigational systems. They fly in total darkness, sending out high-frequency, high-intensity sounds that bounce back to them on striking objects," Brown-Berry said.
Bats' sophisticated echolocation systems enable them to find swarms of insects. Echolocation also informs bats of texture, size, shape, and those insects edible and those not.
She talked about Bracken Cave in Texas, home of a colony of 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats that fly from the cave after darkness, consuming 250,000 pounds of mosquitoes and other insects each night.
Bats vary in size from the bumblebee bat of Thailand, weighing a third less than a penny and the world's smallest mammal, to flying foxes weighing 3 to 4 pounds with wingspans up to six feet.
In China, the bat is revered. The Chinese word \o7 bien-fu \f7 means both good luck and bat, said Brown-Berry. \o7 Wu-fu, \f7 the Chinese design of five bats in a circle wingtip to wingtip, is a symbol of long life, health, prosperity, happiness and painless death.
"It's time to turn around the bats' bad rap in this country. People should be blessed having bats," insisted Brown-Berry, one of a handful of bat experts in the United States. She is also director of the Maturango Museum here, 175 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The museum is dedicated to the natural resources of the Mojave Desert.