My poem “Bats and Churches” was inspired by my day job on the Bat Conservation Trust’s National Bat Helpline (although I’m speaking for myself, not my employer, in both the poem and this blog post). We answer a wide variety of queries about bats from members of the public, and our callers are rarely indifferent or detached. While bats aren’t the only animals that provoke strong emotions (both positive and negative), they seem to affect people on a deeper level than other species. I think this is because they exist on the border between two states of being – bird and beast, day and night, and (during their winter hibernation, when they reduce their heartbeat and breathing to a minimum) life and death. I’ve come to believe that the way people respond to bats reflects the way they respond to ambiguity in the world and themselves.
About half our calls are from people who’ve found grounded or injured bats. (Keep your cats indoors at night, please.) We talk them through containing the bats and then direct them to trained and vaccinated volunteers who look after bats until they’re fit for release (sometimes staying up all night to feed bat pups, or turning their sitting rooms into a flight practice space). We run an ongoing survey of bat finders, which has shown that rescuing a bat affects them profoundly. If they were afraid of bats before, they’re very likely to become bat-lovers. Even if they already liked bats, the experience stays with them for a long time. Some people believe that “their” bat comes to visit them in their garden on summer evenings.
Another significant portion of our calls comes from churches that have bat roosts. As humans have destroyed their natural habitat, bats have come to rely on buildings for shelter. At least 60% of pre-Reformation churches in England have bats, and like all bat roosts in the UK, they are strictly protected by law. Churches often contact us for help when they want to do building work without harming their bats. If Leonard Cohen had been a batworker, he might have summarised our advice like this:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Repair the others in the spring,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the bats get in.
Sometimes bats or their droppings cause problems for church congregations. Bats in Churches is a joint project by Natural England, Historic England, the Church of England, the Churches Conservation Trust and the Bat Conservation Trust that seeks to help bats and worshipers live in harmony.
The interaction between bats and churches is especially interesting because religion, like bats, deals with liminal spaces. The occasional need to balance worshipers’ interests against the bats’ forces people to reflect on the place of organised religion in modern society. It also raises an age-old conflict: how does the church, which is supposed to convert and transform the world, respond when confronted with beings that do not submit?