Originally created 08/29/98

Europe celebrates bat night



BERLIN -- Europe will be going a little batty this weekend.

Bat lovers in 14 countries, including a descendant of Dracula, are promoting the benign side of the nocturnal creature with festivals and exhibits aimed at improving bats' blood-sucking image.

"Phrases such as `bats in the belfry' and `blind as a bat' really give a false impression," said bat enthusiast Eric Blencowe, head of the Bonn-based Eurobats bat conservation group.

"Bats are neither mad nor blind."

The second annual European Bat night on Saturday is organized by Bonn-based Eurobats and national and local affiliates in each country, all of which are signatories to a 1994 international agreement on bat conservation.

The agreement seeks to coordinate research and conservation efforts to help the endangered mammals, some of which migrate across Europe. Bats in Europe have suffered a substantial decline this century, mainly due to loss of roosts when trees are cut down or buildings renovated.

Organizers also hope the night will help ease people's fears of bats, real and imagined, fueled by blood-sucking Dracula stories and concerns that they transmit rabies.

Advocates say the 31 species of bats in Europe only eat insects, which people should actually be grateful for.

"People and bats can happily co-exist across the continent," said Julia Hamner of Britain's Bat Conservation Trust.

Her group is sponsoring a Bat Discovery Evening in London, allowing visitors to "enter the secret ultrasonic world of bats using bat detectors."

The detectors, usually operated by researchers, turn the inaudible sounds bats make to help themselves navigate into squeaks people can hear. They'll be used in other countries, too.

"We'll be watching bats at dusk emerging from their day roosting sites and listening to the sounds they make as they feed and they hunt," said Kate McAney of the Vincent Wildlife Trust in Ireland. "We're in a sense eavesdropping on the bats."

In Bulgaria, there is a bat exhibit at the National Museum of Natural history and a whole "bat day" planned in the town of Burgas. In Latvia, people will visit bat roosts and catch real bats.

But the biggest bat party will be held in Berlin's Spandau Citadel, a centuries-old stone fortress that really does have bats in its belfry -- about 10,000.

A descendent of Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Wallachian prince known as Dracula, will even leave his castle outside of Berlin to autograph "bat adoption certificates" at the Citadel.

"I'm very excited about bat night," said Ottomar Rudolphe Vlad Dracula Prince Kretzulesco. "They have such a sensitive radar system and are true flight acrobats ... I've had some here in my castle and it's amazing."