Heart of bat city

Jade Emerson , Life and Arts General Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the October 15 flipbook.

As twilight sets out over Lady Bird Lake, crowds gather on Congress Avenue Bridge humming in anticipation. Against the Austin skyline, small, dark figures begin to take off from under the bridge, disappearing into the night. 

“I feel bats are the mascot for Austin,” said biology junior Ishita Neeraj. “You haven’t really lived in Austin unless you’ve gone and seen the bats.”

Naturally, October boasts the title of Bat Appreciation Month. However, leading up to Halloween, bat fear and misconception peak. Husband and wife duo Lee Mackenzie and Dianne Odegard of the Austin Bat Refuge share their knowledge and love for these flying nocturnal mammals.

“Bats give Austin its identity,” Mackenzie said. “It’s so amazing to see the whole world show up at our doorstep at Congress Avenue Bridge. … They bring nature right in the middle of downtown.”

After the 1980 renovation, Congress Avenue Bridge accidentally became the perfect environment for bats to shelter their pups. Thus, a colony of bats made their home in the heart of Austin. 

“When the bats first started gathering there in large numbers, people were really afraid because there wasn’t a lot of bat education available back then,” Odegard said. “People just really knew nothing except all of the myths and things that made them afraid.”

Lifelong lovers of wildlife, Odegard and Mackenzie dedicate their lives to helping Austin’s bats through public education and bat rehabilitation. In addition to providing feed and care at the refuge, creating social media posts, and leading education programs, they answer around 350 bat rescue calls a year. 

“(Bats) just want to go out and make a living, raise their families and enjoy life like we all do,” Mackenzie said. “We just ask people to give them a break and realize that they … (are) worthy of our respect and consideration.”

Eating 10 tons — 20,000 pounds — of insects every night, the bats of Congress Avenue Bridge help exterminate harmful crop pests. Beyond their ecological importance, Mackenzie celebrates the intrinsic value of bats stating each has its own personality and life story.

While the Austin Bat Refuge takes volunteers and donations, Odegard and Mackenzie emphasize education as paramount to promoting coexistence with bats.

“Learn about bats and talk to people in your life, and make sure that they know the truth about bats,” Mackenzie said. “Be an advocate for them — the underdog.”

Mackenzie says the biggest obstacle bats face lies in human misunderstanding, leading people to act in a harmful or incorrect way when face-to-face with bats.

“Anything kind of scary thing that comes along gets blamed on bats right away,” Mackenzie said. “Part of our education campaign is to use social media to show how non-scary they are (and) how charming they can be.”