FRANKLIN COUNTY — Donna Mowery really ought to have her own bat signal.
In the last seven years, Mowery has become the go-to bat rehabilitation expert for greater St. Louis, helping panicked people remove bats from homes and answering nonstop calls to take in bats in need.
“Someone’s got to do it,” she said on a recent morning wearing a T-shirt with the message: “I love bats to the moon and back.”
Bats are vital to the ecosystem, Mowery said. They are pollinators, the earth’s only flying mammals, and a natural insect repellent — one bat will kill thousands of mosquitoes a night. “Their filet mignon is mosquitoes,” she said.
But they’re also in trouble. Some face habitat loss, others serious threats like White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has wiped out millions of bats across the country.
So Mowery takes them into her eastern Franklin County home, raising some for months. Others need quick care, like water and a good meal. She puts in about eight to 10 hours a day caring for infant bats every spring. In the creatures’ first weeks, she and her husband wake up every three hours to give them the round-the-clock feedings they need to survive.
The Mowerys raise them until the bats are old enough to fend for themselves. They first feed the little mammals from a dropper and allow them to learn to fly from side to side in mesh dog carriers. Finally the bats are put in an outside enclosure where they learn to hunt insects and are released.
Mowery’s record year was 2017, when she raised 18 bats at once.
“I remember there were so many that year that I actually snuck a few into the hotel with me when I had to go out of town for business,” Mowery said.
Mowery does all her rehab work as a volunteer, on top of a full-time job in operations management and her role as a grandmother to eight.
But to her it’s worth it.
“I want to make sure there are still bats around for them,” she said pointing to her grandkids.
Getting the bat call
Mowery’s home is no gothic bat lair. The couple live in an airy country house with a big porch in Catawissa, about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis.
The only signs of Mowery’s volunteer work are her stores of mealworms, which she orders by the ten thousand; the baby food applesauce that goes into a mix to feed her youngest patients; and the three juvenile big brown bats she is rehabilitating in a puppy carrier in a spare room.
Mowery always loved bats as a girl growing up in Missouri, but came to actually welcome them in her home after she and her husband completed the Missouri Master Naturalist program nine years ago.
Through the program, the couple met Kirsten Alvey-Mudd, who runs the Missouri Bat Census, a network of volunteers working on bat conservation around the state.
Mowery started by accompanying Alvey-Mudd on bat surveys. In the middle of the night, the group sets up nets to capture bats. By the light of flashlights, they take measurements and record key information before releasing the bats back into the wild.
The data help track trends in bat species diversity and monitor the spread of diseases like White Nose Syndrome.
Mowery soon began helping with Alvey-Mudd’s rehab work raising bats, learning everything that goes into their care.
“I started to realize maybe this is something I want to do,” she said. As far as she knew, there were no bat rehabbers in the St. Louis region.
The biggest reason was likely the cost of the rabies vaccine, Mowery said. Mowery estimates she spent about $6,000 to get a series of three rabies shots so she could begin her work.
Mowery said she’s likely been bitten about 1,000 times. Though, she notes, getting rabies from a bat is rare. About 6% of sick or weak bats were found to have rabies in one study, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Bats are wild animals, so they will bite you,” Mowery said. “That is in their nature.”
Mowery gets plenty of interesting calls on her cellphone, which over the last seven years has become a de facto hotline for bat questions and emergencies.
She remembers a homeowner so scared of a single bat that he ran into his living room screaming when she pulled it from a sliding door. On one call in the Shaw neighborhood in the city, she came across at least 300 bats that had taken up residence in an attic. On another to a log cabin in the Metro East, the “bats” caught in a wall turned out to be flying squirrels.
“That was a surprise,” Mowery said laughing.
Most calls come by word of mouth and through referrals from rescues and the Missouri Department of Conservation, Mowery said.
Mowery will help homeowners get bats out of their residences — if the people commit to closing up holes and other house entry points. She also works with groups like the Boy Scouts to build bat houses, which look a bit like wooden mailboxes, and helps install them for people looking to support a bat colony, often to help with bug control.
Mowery speaks to schools about the importance of bats in Missouri and brings along a few winged friends for the kids to pet.
“They are usually excited. It’s the adults that act scared,” she said.
She sees clearing up misconceptions about bats as part of her mission.
“Bats are one of the most misunderstood animals that we have,” she said. “Television and films made them out to be bad. People think: ‘They’re going to suck my blood. I’m going to get rabies.’ They’re not thinking about all the good they do.”
The three big brown bats Mowery rescued from St. Louis this spring are getting close to learning to fly. She hopes to release them by September or October.
“Whenever we can release a bat, I call that a success,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”