BROOKSVILLE — Cyndi Marks believes bats will probably always get a bad rap.
Blame it on years of negative press, she says. Horror movies and lurid tales depicting them as rabid, bloodsucking beasts, plus the fact that they're not the most cuddly of critters, has doomed their fate in the minds of the public.
All that, however, hasn't lessened the creatures in Marks' mind. She loves them, and will gladly explain to anyone willing to listen to the multitude of benefits that bats provide to humanity.
"It's amazing all the untrue things you hear about bats," Marks said. "Most people have no idea just how important they are to the environment."
Which is why Marks and her husband founded the Florida Bat Conservancy in 1994. In addition to promoting education to the public, the Pinellas County organization operates a statewide rescue and rehabilitation operation for injured bats.
Although rarely seen by humans because of their nocturnal nature, Marks says bats are among the most popular mammals on Earth. Thirteen species can be found in Florida, and all of them, she pointed out, feed only on insects, not on blood. A single bat can eat up to 3,000 insects a night.
"They are quite remarkable creatures," Marks said. "For that reason alone, they're worth protecting. But they also are key to the overall health of our ecosystem. As bats go, so does the environment."
Marks, who will lead a bat and owl prowl tonight and a bat workshop Saturday at the Chinsegut Nature Center's Birding and Wildlife Festival, says that most people who fear bats do so irrationally. Despite the common notion that they are dangerous carriers of rabies, less than 1 percent of the creatures found in the wild test positive for the disease.
Although bats are protected by state and federal laws, Marks fears that the escalating loss of habitat, coupled with unchecked natural diseases, could spell a rapid decline for some bat species in Florida if nothing is done. She says that building bat houses would help to support more bat colonies in urban areas.
Said Marks: "Bat populations in those areas have really come under assault in recent years. Without some human intervention, they may very well end up gone forever. And that would be a terrible, terrible thing."
Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes or (352) 848-1435.