Bat conservation group founder Tuttle still has passion for bats

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015 Local

Merlin Tuttle has made news numerous times, including in 2009, when he decided it was time to move on from Bat Conservation International, which he founded in Milwaukee in the early 1980s before moving himself and the organization to Austin a few years later.

“I thought it had a lot of bats and a lot of media with nothing better to do than talk about bats,” Tuttle said of his adopted home.

Those were the days, you may or may not recall, when some work on the underside of what was then called the Congress Avenue bridge made for a cozy nesting place for up to some 1.5 million Mexican (now called Brazilian) free-tailed bats, freaking out a population that didn’t yet want to keep Austin quite that weird.

The work on the bridge produced a series of long, thin expansion joints on the bridge’s underside — about an inch wide, 17 inches deep, running the 950-foot length of the bridge. Unbeknownst to the structural engineers, such gaps are terrifically attractive nursery spaces for bats: A square foot of the humid, warm, cozy space can have 200 or more full-grown bats crammed into it.

A potential crisis of public health was declared; the local media dutifully hyperventilated over the story. And along came Tuttle, champion of the bat.

They eat tons of pests every night, he said. They are not likely to give you rabies — look, don’t touch! They are your friends.

Now as then, people from all over the world perch on and around the bridge to watch the dramatic nightly emergence of the bats as they venture out to feed in the warm months when they’re here (they winter in caves in northern Mexico and return to Austin in spring). And now as ever, Tuttle is a tireless advocate for the animals, which had been given a rap almost as bad as the mythical cupacabra.

“I thrive on challenges,” said Tuttle, who’s now 74 and has his own organization, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, which, among other things, offers for nonprofit educational groups free digital images of some of the tens of thousands of bat photos Tuttle has taken in his career.

“You tell me someone’s a die-hard, bat-hater and I’m itching to go see them,” he said. “So often we demonize people who disagree with us. When you start an organization for something as unpopular as bats were in those days, you have to win friends, not battles. If you want to be successful at any cause, you can’t be combative.”