West High is stopover for bats on their way to Mexico
New school principals get a lot of introductions their first day on the job. Margery Parker remembers one introduction in particular five years ago, shortly after becoming principal of West High School.
"I saw one flying down the hallway, and asked what that was about. I was told the school sat on a migratory route," Parker said.
A migratory route for Mexican free-tailed bats, that is. Come fall they pop out of school vents, hang from wall fixtures outside the school, perch on the ceilings, or fly across the school's fourth-floor halls. Not in great numbers, but in numbers enough to notice.
"We're used to it. Or, most everybody is," said Zuleyma Sanchez, a 16-year-old junior from Salt Lake City. "Some girls just scream the heck out of themselves."
In the Alpine School District, the presence of bats provoked a lawsuit from the mother of one student at Lehi High School.
She alleged the school failed to warn her son of potential dangers from the animals, including rabies, before he picked up a bat from the school lawn and showed it to classmates for several hours. In response, a lawyer with the Utah Attorney General's Office has said the state cannot be responsible for a student's carelessness.
At West High School, meanwhile, the bats' stopover on their way to Mexico, where they winter in large number, is something of a tradition.
"If you go to the top floor at night after a dance or football game, sometimes you can hear them tussling around," said Kevin Hinerman, 19, who graduated from the school in 2007. "It's fun. They're really not that big; smaller than a mouse."
Danette Chase, Hinerman's mother, said she became concerned when she first heard of bats at the school, but has since lost concern. "They haven't shut down the school yet," she said.
Utah is home to 18 species of bats feeding mostly on insects. The Utah Division of Wildlife estimates that less than 1 percent of Utah bats carry the rabies virus.
Parker said the school warns students on a regular basis never to touch the flying mammals, and to stay clear of them. "They usually do that anyway," Parker said.
Recognizing that it's easier to accommodate the animals to some degree than it is to change their migratory route, the Salt Lake City School District years ago installed small bat houses that students have dubbed "bat condos" atop the school's roof in hopes that fewer of the animals venture into the school attic and, eventually, into school halls.
The few bats that do make their way into the school are usually caught by custodians using a net, then released outside.
"It's only three weeks in the fall that we see them," said Parker, who also said no one has yet suggested the school change its mascot from the panther to the bat. "We do get a lot of bat jokes around here, though. And a lot of bat puns."
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* Range: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Oklahoma. Also found throughout the southeastern United States.
* Habitat: In the West and Southeast, they live primarily in buildings; in the south they are mostly cave-dwelling. Among the most social of bats, they live in colonies, which can number into the millions.
* Food: Primarily small moths, captured in flight.
* Family life: A single pup is born each year from June to mid-July. The young take their first flight at about five weeks of age, which is later than most bats.
Source: Organization for Bat Conservation