Bat Crazy

Published March 16, 2020 — Rutgers University Alumni Association

Javier Folgar is on a mission to ensure the survival of the world’s bats. As director of communications at Bat Conservation International (BCI), he’s spreading the word about all the good that bats do. “They provide vital services in the form of pest consumption, plant pollination, and seed dispersal, making them essential to the health of global ecosystems and the economy,” Folgar RBS’07 says.

Lately, the nonprofit organization has been working to set the record straight about COVID-19 and its possible origin in bats. “We don’t know exactly how the virus jumped from animal to human,” Folgar says. “We don’t know whether the viral spillover to humans involved direct contact with a bat or another wild animal. It’s important to note that bats carrying coronaviruses in the wild, undisturbed by people, are not a threat to human health.”

In fact, bat research aids scientists “in understanding our own immune systems and ways to fight diseases. That is why studying and protecting these species is so crucial,” he adds.

Folgar works out of BCI’s Washington, D.C., office to shine a light on how disease, hunting, and the destruction of habitats have imperiled bats’ existence. The organization recently launched a massive campaign to educate the public on the contribution these flying mammals make and the threats they face. For instance, Folgar says, the Florida bonneted bat, the rarest bat in America, is classified as a federally endangered species. The bats’ survival is crucial because they reduce the need for pesticides by consuming insects that would otherwise ravage crops in Florida.

Every October, BCI sponsors Bat Week, a worldwide celebration of the essential role that bats play in nature and the pressing need to conserve their population. He’s working with filmmakers on upcoming documentaries to spread the message.

While attending Rutgers, Folgar learned how to speak in public effectively and connect with an audience. He credits the late professor Carter Daniel RBS’74, director of business communication programs at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick, for that. “He had a lot of confidence and faith in me,” Folgar says. “By the time I graduated, I was better equipped to make a positive difference in the world.”

Folgar first became interested in conservation as a Rutgers undergraduate, during a semester-long internship with New Jersey Community Water Watch, which tackles state water quality problems. He cleaned trash from rivers and learned how to organize volunteers and raise money. Then, during a missionary trip to a rural community in New Mexico, Folgar went hiking for the first time and fell in love with the outdoors.

In January 2019, Folgar got an extreme close-up of bats when he accompanied BCI colleagues to Bracken Cave, 20 miles outside of San Antonio, Texas, the largest bat colony in the world. Wearing hazmat suits, Folgar and his colleagues gathered samples to study white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that

is decimating bats. He returned in the summer during the peak season to see more than 20 million bats streak from the cavern on their nightly quest for insects.

“You’d think it would be scary or chaotic, but it’s just so peaceful. You feel honored to be able to witness such a profound sight in nature,” Folgar says. “Moments like that remind me why I’m in conservation—to protect this species for future generations to enjoy.”

How to Be Bat Friendly

Property owners can help protect bats by providing them with habitats that help them thrive. Try these tips from Bat Conservation International to attract bats to your backyard.

Leave dead trees: If you have a dead tree that doesn’t pose a safety threat, leave it in your yard. Bats like to roost in the narrow spaces between the bark and the wood.

Build or buy a bat house: Bat Conservation International provides designs and instructions on how to build a bat house, or you can buy them from certified vendors. You’ll find a list of vendors here and tips on the best locations for bat houses here.

Keep cats indoors: Cat attacks are a common cause of bat casualties so keep your cat inside, especially in the summer months, when mother bats are taking care of their young. If that’s not possible, keep your cat inside from a half hour before sunset to an hour past sunset, when bats are most active.