COAL VALLEY, Ill., — In the building behind the giraffes, veer right past the meerkats and porcupines.
Pull aside the curtains, and day becomes night. As your eyes adjust, the swirl of dark images comes into focus.
There is no mistaking a bat in flight or at rest, especially when you're this close. And the only thing separating you from dozens of Seba's short-tailed bats at Niabi Zoo is a piece of glass.
Love them or fear them, the earth's only flying mammals are fascinating. Some of us have seen them up-close, usually as we try to shoo them out of the house. But we mostly see them swooping above as dusk falls and coaxes them from their daytime rest.
Thanks to technology in lighting, Niabi has managed to make the nocturnal mammals believe that day is night. In their light-altered exhibit, you can see how bats naturally behave. There's no waiting for action. The Sega's are loaded with energy, flitting from branches to baskets of bananas, which are a staple in their fruit-based diet.
The bat environment at Biodiversity Hall is the newest exhibit at Niabi, and it gives visitors an experience that Zoo Director Lee Jackson said has been missing from wildlife education.
"Most of the mammals on the planet are rodents and bats," he said. "We don't tell people what's really in the world if we leave out a giant chunk of them."
So Niabi brought in the bats — 42 males. They avoided mingling any females in the exhibit, Jackson said, because bats are voracious breeders ("Forty can turn to 600 real fast").
Open just two weeks, the Seba's exhibit has been an instant hit, Jackson said. They are mostly low-maintenance creatures, although all animals that eat fruit produce a corresponding multitude of waste. Outside of hosing down their home every day and having a vet give them an annual physical, the bats are left to do what bats do: eat, sleep, fly, talk to each other.
Wait. Talk to each other?
"Bats make sounds that are beyond our hearing," Jackson said. "The technology that permits humans to hear them is pretty amazing."
And that technology is being put to use at Niabi, although not with the Seba's collection. Jackson and his team have been collaborating with a group from the University of Dubuque, surveying the health of our region's bat population. Using nets at dusk on the Niabi grounds, bats are captured long enough to be measured, checked for gender, approximate age and any signs of disease.
There is good news and bad news about the bats being surveyed at the Niabi test site.
The good news: There's been no sign of white-nose syndrome, which is the disease that has been killing millions of bats in areas of North America.
The bad news: Something is killing them. Studies are showing a sharp decline — as much as 80 percent — in the bat population. A couple of probable explanations, Jackson said, are insecticide use and habitat loss.
But the Seba's bats are isolated from the troubles affecting wild bats. In captivity, they can be expected to live for 10 years.
In their darkened enclosure, the blue/purple light gives the bats an other-worldly appearance — swooping with a seemingly erratic purpose from roost to food. They use echolocation to find their way, so we must surmise the occasional contact with another roosting bat is intentional.
Perhaps most impressive about bats is the freakishly cool way in which they roost, hanging upside-down for long periods while suspending their entire body weight with the strength of the finger/toes on their tiny feet. They can even use one of their feet to scratch an itch, while holding their entire bodies aloft with the strength of one foot. They're terrible show offs.
Bats have been getting a bum rap for years, thanks in part to the vampire bat, even though it's only one among about 1,200 species of bat. The fact the vampire bat lives exclusively on blood does little to help advance the bats-are-cool crusade. Also not helping matters among those who fear rats and mice is that bats definitely resemble rodents that have made off with somebody's wings.
Zoo admissions are being waived for the rest of the month, so consider setting irrational fears aside long enough to get an eyeful of the busy little bats. It might even help with the freak-out factor the next time one ends up in the house.
What about the penguin talk?
When Jackson took over at Niabi Zoo about 17 months ago, I learned that we share a fondness for penguins.
I'm happy to report that he has not abandoned plans to bring the funny, flightless birds to Niabi.
"It's certainly something we'd like to do, and it's high on my list," he said Monday.
The idea of bringing rhinos to the zoo was abandoned when a full accounting was done, and it was determined additional staff would have to be hired, and rhinos eat a couple thousand dollars' worth of meals every year.
Many more ideas soon will be on the table, however.
An architectural firm that specializes in zoos has been hired and will begin next month to put together a Master Plan for Niabi. Expected to take about six months, the plan will look at best uses for everything at the zoo — from enclosures and unused acreage to restrooms and concession areas.
"We'll have more new small exhibits this spring," Jackson promised. "We won't wait for the Master Plan to add some more new things. And we'll be asking for community input."
Only the bats will be left in the dark.