Animal lover rescues bats trapped under bridge by Hurricane Harvey

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Some of the bats rescued from their colony’s sleeping place under the Waugh Bridge near downtown Houston. (Photo: Courtesy of Jacob Calle)

Many Texans have formed makeshift civilian navies to help rescue their neighbors from the historic flooding left over from Hurricane Harvey, which is expected to leave at least 30,000 displaced from their homes.

Jacob Calle, a PhD student in biology in Houston, used a kayak to check submerged cars on Highway 288 to see if anyone needed help last weekend. But when Calle’s rescue mission was over, the animal lover’s thoughts quickly turned to the storm’s effect on Houston’s wildlife, in particular a beloved colony of bats.

Calle spent his Sunday rescuing a colony of free-tailed bats that live under the Waugh Bridge near downtown Houston.

“Animals are always going to have the last voice in these types of situations whenever there are human lives at cost, so at least I could do what I can on my own,” Calle said.

The bats are something of a tourist attraction — people wait to see them emerge from their hiding spot en masse after sunset each night. A couple of times a month, volunteers from the Houston Parks and Recreation Department hold “bat chats” before sunset to teach residents about the colony. The bats have a voracious appetite for mosquitoes, which breed in Houston’s many bayous and waterways.

A colony of Mexican free-tailed bats emerges at dusk from under the Waugh Bridge in downtown Houston in 2013. (Photo: Norm Lanier via Flickr)

When Calle saw the extent of the flooding on Sunday, he quickly set out to the bridge to see what had happened to the bats. Waugh Bridge stretches over Buffalo Bayou, which had flooded over its banks and approached the underside of the bridge. Some of the bats had fallen into the water, while others were clinging for their lives. Many of them had already been blown away onto other buildings.

“As the water was rising they were trapped underneath the bridge,” Calle said. “Whenever it was time to fly at night they didn’t realize how high the water was and they just splashed into the water.”

About 30 other “passionate animal lovers” were helping to rescue the bats, Calle said, and he estimates about 700 to 1,000 bats were saved. A volunteer held Calle by the legs as he looked for bats trapped under the bridge. He used thick leather gloves to pick up each bat and then dry it off on a towel. But many of the volunteers had no protective gear or vaccines, risking a potential rabies infection.

“Although these animals do have low stats on hosting the virus, I greatly appreciate that they’d put their selves at risk with these animals when this is not the greatest time in Houston to be bitten by an animal that could possibly be rabid,” Calle said.

Many of the bats flew away once they were dry, but some were not able to.

“I took about 90 home,” Calle said. “I made a makeshift roost and they were fine for a while.”

Once the bats recovered, Calle said he released them in an abandoned house next to him. “I just opened up the lid and allowed them to freely volunteer to leave,” he said.

On Monday, Calle returned to the Waugh Bridge and heard the bats chirping underneath, and he’s now confident they’ll be OK.

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