PALM HARBOR — The day was crisp Saturday, perfect for a bike ride, and Barbara Hoffman of East Lake was approaching one of her favorite spots on the Pinellas Trail.
She and her friends had come to the Alt. U.S. 19 underpass tunnel near Wall Springs Park several times to watch a large colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the structure's joints and fly up into the dusk.
"I was really happy about this because they are such amazing creatures," she said. "Every time I've gone, there have been other people there watching, too."
But on Saturday, a man on scaffolding was reaching up toward the joints where about 2,000 bats have been living. Tom Finn of Fly By Night, a Volusia County company that specializes in removing bats in a humane way, told Hoffman he was hired to keep the bats out of the cracks they had called home.
"My heart fell," Hoffman said.
Though some trail users say the public underpass is an ideal habitat for a maligned native mammal, others have complained about the smell of the bat colony and its droppings, called guano. And the county didn't want the extra cleanup.
Hoffman, an environmental activist with the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve and a member of the county's Environmental Science Forum, said she is disappointed that the county couldn't do better by a native species. The county listened to the complainers, she said, but not to those who appreciated the bats.
"Pinellas County says they are so green and they are getting awards," she said. "But here's a perfect opportunity to put up a little kiosk and educate the public.
"Because bats do get a bad rap."
A county parks and recreation official said the county has pressure-washed the trail beneath the underpass three times.
"We've been having to clean it and we've been faced with knowing how it impacts trail users," said Lyle Fowler, a parks and recreation operations manager. "It's a pretty bad smell."
He said the county called the Florida Department of Transportation, the owners of the bridge.
That call was back in May, according to Marian Scorza, a DOT spokeswoman, who said the county asked DOT to remove the bats.
The cost was already covered in DOT's maintenance contract, she said.
But Fly By Night had to wait to remove the colony and seal up the cracks until the season when bats raise their young was over, mid April through late August.
Finn, 46, had already placed screens over all the cracks along with tubes that serve as temporary escape routes for the bats.
On Tuesday, he was up on the scaffolding again removing some of the tubes and sealing the edges of the screens to prevent bats from returning.
Two new bat houses, so far ignored, were standing nearby outside the tunnel.
The company Finn works for, involved in bat research, is known for taking a scientific and humane approach to relocating bats from places they are not wanted.
"It's a troublesome job for me," he said. "Because I like them."
He expected some of the trail users to complain that he was taking the bats away from a location so suited to their needs: lots of cracks the perfect width, a water supply nearby and on public property. But mostly, people on the trail said they were happy he was there to "get rid of them."
One man backed him up to a wall, practically screaming about how dangerous bats are, histoplasmosis, rabies.
"Hollywood's got them afraid and there's nothing to be afraid of," Finn said.
He moves the bats, he said, he doesn't "get rid of them." As a volunteer service, he gently carries some of them up to the bat houses to introduce them to another possible home.
"When you get to know an animal and appreciate them, I'm giving them an eviction notice," he said. "It hurts."
The Brazilian free-tailed bats in the underpass are a docile breed, he said. Finn is vaccinated against rabies, so he handles them with his bare hands when he needs to touch them. But he warns that the public should not touch them.
"If they do bite you," he said, "it's only because you are squeezing them too hard."
He has pulled his ladder up to a lot of bat colonies and thinks they talk to each other, that they have sentries that chirp out a warning when a human is nearby.
By Sunday, Finn will have removed all the escape tubes and hopes all the bats will have left the bridge. He thinks they may have moved on to another colony nearby.
But on Tuesday, at least one was still up there under the mesh, chirping.
Jeanne Murphy of Sensing Nature, an eco-tourism, environmental education and consulting company, was the county's wildlife biologist before her position was eliminated this year.
"It is a challenge to balance the human-use component as well as keeping artificial habitat for bats," Murphy said Thursday.
It's best that people not come in contact with the guano of any animal, she said, as inline skaters might on the trail.
But specific diseases often attributed to bats are of little concern, Murphy said. Histoplasmosis is in the soil, not on the bats, she said, and quite rare in Florida.
Only half of 1 percent of bats in Florida have rabies, she said. Bats don't attack when they get rabies, they go off on their own to die.
So the disease is usually transmitted to people when they find the bats, try to move them and get bitten.
Bats are extremely beneficial to humans in insect control, Murphy said, eating about their weight in insects each night.
"They are amazing, beneficial creatures," she said. "Once people understand what the facts are about bats, as opposed to the myths, usually people are a lot more willing to live and co-exist."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.