Pettit Preserve goes batty Saturday

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With Halloween quickly approaching, the Pettit Preserve is hoping to debunk some of the scary myths surrounding bats.

The nonprofit nature preserve has invited Vicky Benham Smith to bring her bat ambassadors to help her present the Beneficial Bats Program Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at the 70-acre property off Highway 61, four miles south of the Cartersville Airport on the Bartow/Paulding line.    

Executive Director Marina Robertson said Smith did a fun, informative program with her Egyptian fruit bats at the preserve a few years ago, and she is "thrilled" to have them coming back again.   

"When Vicky did a program eight years ago, it was absolutely fabulous," she said, noting it was "one of our highest ever in attendance." "The live bats were amazing, but she has so many other teaching tools — bat artifacts, bat costumes and so on — that help kids and adults understand more about bats."

Smith, a wildlife/environmental educator who owns A-Z Animals in Auburn, Alabama, said she loves to do educational programs in a natural setting.  

"Pettit Preserve is a place I've presented before, and they were putting up a bat house after my last program there a few years ago so I'm excited to be asked back," she said.  

Robertson said Smith, who has been doing bat education programs in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, North and South Carolina and Kentucky since 1997, will be teaching about the wide variety of bat species and the important role they play in the web of life.

"Part of the program talks about the difference between microbats and megabats, and of course, you have to talk about bat sonar," she said.

Called "The Bat Lady," Smith said her program will be "fun and informative" and will cover a number of topics concerning her winged friends.

"The presentation will give facts about bats, such as the number in the world, U.S. and Georgia," she said. "It will debunk the myths we hear about bats; it informs people about the different type of bats in the world and how they are classified. We will talk a bit about white-nose syndrome and the devastating results from yearly surveys that it is causing. We will look at several mounted species of bats, both our natives and others from around the world. And the most exciting part of the program will be the meeting of one of my Egyptian fruit bats." 

Smith said she hopes people who attend her presentations will learn to "appreciate these winged mammals for the economic and ecological benefits they provide us."

"All of our bats here in Georgia are insect eaters, but they are important pollinators and seed dispensers in other countries," she said. "I hope [the attendees] will be interested in supporting conservation efforts." 

Robertson said bats, the only flying mammals, get a bad rap because of all the incorrect information floating around, but they're actually "lean, mean, bug-eating machines."

"The most frequently asked question [at the preserve] is 'How can I encourage bats to roost on my property?'" she said. "People are realizing that bats are a great natural way to control mosquitos. Many folks put up a bat house without knowing there are very specific guidelines for locating it to make it attractive to bats. Vicky will be able to provide great information on this and really any question about bats." 

She also said she hopes those who attend the program "will realize not only are bats not a danger to humans, but they actually improve our lives and [are] interesting to watch." 

Smith began her environmental education career as a volunteer educator at the Birmingham Zoo five years before eventually going out on her own in 2003.

The winner of the 2017 President’s Choice Award from the Georgia Bat Working Group has presented programs on a wide variety of environmental topics to more than 7,500 people per year through her traveling programs, reaching 5,000-plus a year with her Batty About Bats program alone.  

"Vicky has decades of experience teaching about bats and has participated in bat research and tagging expeditions in many countries so her knowledge of bats is really impressive," Robertson said.

Smith said her fascination with the furry winged creatures began when she saw her first one around age 7.

"My aunt brought it home for us to see," she said. "A janitor had hit it with a broom at her church, and they put it in a jar. The adults were all saying how it had rabies because it was a bat. I ran to get an encyclopedia and looked it up and began arguing with the adults to not kill it. I lost that battle, and the little bat and jar were thrown into a garbage bin."

But Smith said that experience "always stuck with me," and when she volunteered at the Birmingham Zoo, she got her first chance to work with bats.

"We had two big browns in our collection, and I fell in love with them and began learning the zoo's education program so I could help teach about these amazing animals," she said.

A visit to the Lubee Bat Conservancy in Gainesville, Florida, however, got her "completely hooked on bats after meeting their fruit bats," she said. 

"As a matter of fact, they gave me some fruit bats to use for education, and I now have the Egyptian fruit bats as well as several species of native bats that come to me from rehabbers," she said. "I also get to work with scientists and researchers doing field work with our native species in Georgia and Alabama and several other states."

Besides Smith's three bat presentations Saturday, the preserve trail will be open for self-led hikes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hikers are asked to arrive no later than 4 p.m. so they can finish by closing time.

Children’s bat-themed crafts and interactive activities also will be offered all day. A picnic shelter next to the 9-acre lake will be available for those who want to bring their own lunch, and leashed dogs are welcome at the preserve.  

No reservations are needed for the bat program, but because a big turnout is expected, guests should arrive 15 minutes before the program starts to allow time for parking, checking in and getting a seat.

Admission, which includes the program and parking, is $3 per person, with a maximum of $10 per family.

The hike is free to preserve members, and memberships are available at the website, www.pettitpreserve.org.

For GPS purposes, use the address Douthit Bridge Road, Dallas 30132 to find the preserve. 

For more information on the program, visit the website or contact Robertson at director@pettitpreserve.org or 678-848-4179.