North Carolina zookeeper explains benefits of bats

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ASHEBORO, N.C. -- People flock to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro to see the polar bears, elephants and baby rhinos.

But zookeeper Kim Van Spronsen is a fan of one of the zoo's smallest animals.

"I love them, but I might be partial, but I think they are cute," Van Spronsen said. "There are all different kinds. There are 1,300 kinds of bats and they all kind of vary in their appearance and cuteness range."

That's right, Van Spronsen likes bats. Sadly, the visitors that stop by the bat exhibit don't agree with her.

"A lot of people walk by and cringe or go 'Eww,'" Van Spronsen said. "They are kind of scared of the bats from folklore and their appearance isn't appealing to everyone."

Halloween movies and tales often give bats a bad rap. Plus their name won't win them any beauty contest either. The bats at the North Carolina Zoo are vampire bats from Central and South America. They feed on cattle and other livestock. But Van Spronsen reminds visitors that the bats in North Carolina won't eat livestock.

"In North Carolina, we have 14 kinds of bats and they are all insect eaters," Van Spronsen said. "Each bat can eat 100 to 1,000 insects in an hour. So we really like our insect-eating bats."

More good things about bats, they are pollinators and seed spreaders.

"Bats are responsible for coffee and tequila," Van Spronsen said. "There's an agave plant that is pollinated strictly by a bat. We like them, they give us tequila."

But is human activity endangering bats? White-nose syndrome is a disease that is killing million of bats. It was first discovered in 2007 in New York. Van Spronsen describes what happens when the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome begins growing on hibernating bats.

"It irritates them and wakes them up while they are hibernating, causing them to use a lot of their stored up energy they would have to keep for the whole period of hibernation. So they don't have enough energy make it through and they will die," Van Spronsen said.

Since 2007, white-nose syndrome was been found in 33 states, including North Carolina. In 2017, white-nose syndrome was found in Stokes County. Scientists think the fungus that leads to white-nose syndrome is spread through contact. That contact can be bat to bat or when humans unknowingly carry the fungus into caves on their shoes or clothes. Wildlife officials recommend only visiting commercial caves that are able to disinfect your shoes.

The NC Zoo reminds us that it's OK to enjoy Halloween. But our fear of bats shouldn't go beyond Oct. 31.

"Instead of what might be scary, look at them and appreciate them for their benefits and spread the word," Van Spronsen said.

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