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Save the Bats : Dee and John Lockwood are committed to a daunting task: re-educating the public about the ecological importance of creatures with a bad rap.

July 21, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dee Lockwood is serving afternoon tea and cookies. She is at her kitchen table, bathed in sunlight that pours in through a picture window, the setting and her hospitality and speech the essence of suburban gentility.

But the discussion is bats: their habits, their homes, their value to the world, the bum rap they suffer in the press.

"Hey," says Lockwood, "would you like to see some bat guano?"

She pauses, takes a sip of tea.

"I mean, these guys eat insects at an amazing rate. They're working all night cleaning things up. Their guano is loaded with bug parts--moth eyeballs and such--that the bat doesn't digest."

In a flash she's outside the picture window, down on the front lawn picking up a tiny black pellet. She returns to the kitchen table, opens her bare hand, and there, in the center of her palm, it rests: a tiny black tubule she will carefully place on the tabletop next to her tea, a veritable gemstone of scat.

Her mate, John Lockwood, smears a piece of it on a slide, pops it under a nearby microscope, and pronto: a kaleidoscope of gnat legs and torn sheets of moth eyeball rods and cones, an infinite junkyard of the undigested but decimated, a collage of seemingly ancient life fragments.

Dee lifts the plate of chocolate chip cookies.

"Care for one? Isn't it just amazing?"

BAT ADVOCACY

Dee and John Lockwood are, for want of a better term, bat guerrillas.

They live in a large, modern, airy home on a waterway channel of the Ventura Keys. They're fit, gracious, comported just as you would expect in this upscale neighborhood. But on their street of expensive cars, the Lockwood driveway is overwhelmed by a tan motor home with a large message emblazoned on both sides:

SAVE THE BATS

SALVE LOS MURCIELAGOS

The neighbors at first didn't get it. Then they feared it. Then, says Dee and John, they got to know the Lockwoods personally and, more importantly, the nature of their bat advocacy. Some have even seen Dee's brown bat in the basement freezer or John's brown bat in alcohol in the Ball jar by the kitchen sink--and managed not to shriek.

It's a measure of the Lockwoods' success in telling their story about the role bats have in the ecology of Ventura County and California, Mexico and the world. Their basic message is: Bats are our friends, not enemies, and if they are threatened so is the world as we all know it.

They spread this message with facts, a practical array of things that matter in everyday life to most people.

Among the amazing factoids they report, most furnished by Bat Conservation International (BCI), in Austin, Tex., are that bats are nature's bug-zappers (a single brown bat can catch 600 mosquitoes an hour), re-pollinators (cactus, including agave and saguaro, depend largely upon reseeding by bats, as do countless plant and tree species in tropical rain forests in South America), and most ubiquitous species (nearly 1,000 kinds of bats account for nearly 25% of all mammal species on Earth).

To illustrate the rapacity of bats toward annoying insects and crop-damaging bugs--and our unacknowledged debt to them--the Lockwoods cite a now-famous cave in Bracken, Tex., where 3 million bats live and nightly consume 250,000 pounds of bugs. Without those bats and their insecticide role, farm crops would be eaten, and people everywhere on back porches as well as the agriculture industry would increasingly contaminate the earth with chemical insecticides.

Obviously, mosquitoes and flies in the Ventura Keys are small pickins' by comparison. But there too nature's undesirables are held in check by Ventura's ample population of little brown, little-seen bats. And then, of course, there are the varieties of desert plants that spring up from seeds within the multitudinous bat guano.

The Lockwoods use their own time and money to visit school classrooms in Ventura County, to farms and ranches where misunderstood bats are reported to be "a potential problem," or to Mexico's rural outback. It's a calling of sorts, an inspiration mined in midlife following divorces from previous marriages, a way to commit to something they both truly care about: the natural world.

But it took a while for them to learn this message, let alone sell it.

GETTING PAST UCKY

The love of bats started first with Dee, who, a decade ago, was a housewife on vacation in Oregon. She found an injured bat, put it in a cage and observed it. "It was amazing to watch it move about," she says. "It was actually quite beautiful."

She was raising a family in Los Angeles at the time. Intrigued by her experience, she called the UCLA office of Pat Brown, a scientist who has conducted bat studies on the Channel Islands. Brown introduced Dee to a healthy bat in her lab.

"It was in the palm of my hand, a tiny little thing," Dee says, "and it was calling out to its mama. Once I saw it up close, I was hooked. I fell in love."

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