Mary Warwick didn’t plan to spend the last week of December with more than 1,500 convalescing bats in her home.
But scores of the creatures needed help after a cold snap hit the Houston area on Thursday, bringing temperatures in the low 20s ― too cold for many Mexican free-tailed bats to keep their grip under the bridges they call home.
“They go into hypothermic shock and they just let go of the bridge and drop,” Warwick, a bat expert and Houston Humane Society’s wildlife director, told HuffPost.
The tiny animals, which have little body fat, struggle to maintain a safe body temperature once on the ground, the Houston Humane Society wrote in a Facebook post about the bats’ plight. To survive, the bats need warmth and fluids as soon as possible.
“I currently have 1,544 bats,” Warwick said Monday, adding that she “just got 80 more in.”
Most of the bats in her care came from a “tiny, tiny little bridge south of Houston” in Pearland, Texas, she said. Others came from Houston’s famous Waugh Bridge Colony, a large population of bats living under the city’s Waugh Drive Bridge that regularly draws tourists who watch them taking flight at sunset.
As of Monday, some of the bats were warming up in incubators inside the wildlife rehabilitator’s home, while others were hanging out ― literally ― in her attic in dog crates, their bodies in a hibernated state allowing them to reserve their energy.
A little more than 100 of the bats picked up in the cold snap did not survive, but the majority are recovering and are slated to be released within a few days when the weather warms.
It’s not unusual for “a few” bats to need some help in the winter, Warwick said, but the kind of severe cold snap that spells trouble for so many bats is less common.
“The last one got was about two years ago and we had a lot of deaths from that,” she said.
If someone wants to help a freezing bat on the ground, it’s important not to touch it with bare hands due to the risk of rabies. Instead, Warwick said people should wear gloves and use a piece of cardboard to scoop the bat into a tissue-lined shoebox with air holes, secure the box and bring the bat to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
“I think it’s important to save them because all species inherently have worth,” Warwick said.
Bats also play a crucial role in the ecosystem, eating mosquitoes and agricultural pests like moths, and in turn, serving as a food source for predators like hawks and owls, she added.
On top of that, the fact that the Waugh Drive Bridge has become such a destination for tourism means people owe it to the bats, she said.
“If we’re going use them as a tourist attraction,” Warwick said, helping them is “the least we can do.”