When volunteers discovered a roost of Florida bonneted bats in the roof of an abandoned million-dollar house in Coral Gables two years ago, it was big news. The critically endangered species numbered in the hundreds, and a roost hadn't been found in decades.
But now the bats are on the verge of being evicted in a manner that worries some scientists. After sitting vacant for quite a while, the 6,000-square-foot house at 803 Alhambra Cir. is about to undergo renovations. The city has been trying to hurry along the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's approval process, which involves ensuring the bats aren't mating. They are concerned the historically designated house could be lost.
"The roof is basically falling," Commissioner Vince Lago said at a recent meeting. "It's caving in... and there's nothing [the owners] can do."
Said City Attorney Craig Leen: "The Service needs to pay them while they're using it as a — what do you call it? — a bat house."
So concerned were they that Mayor James Cason recently wrote to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. He argued that forced delays in repairs because of mating might "amount to a regulatory taking of property in violation of the Fifth Amendment."
Now the Fish and Wildlife Service is capturing the bats to evaluate their reproductive status and to look for babies. If they aren't mating and no pups are found, the roost will be removed. If pups are found, removal will be delayed until January. And if the bats are found to be mating, the corner of the roof where they live will be preserved and repaired last.
"So if they're still amorous, we can give them a privacy booth," Cason said.
City officials found the entire bat-sex situation amusing, joking about going after the bats for a noise violation and making puns about "going to bat" for residents. They said they want to save the bats, but the Wildlife Service is taking too long. Lago said the owners of the house — identified in county property records as HFL Management, Inc. — are "at their wits' end." (Hubert Weisslinger, one of the owners, referred New Times to an associate, who did not immediately return a call.)
But the Miami Bat Squad, a group of volunteers and scientists who advocate for research and conservation, isn't laughing. Kirsten Bohn, a biologist and bat expert who founded the group, is worried kicking the bats out in January could kill them. She said her research has found that Florida bonneted bats, which live mostly in South Florida, don't leave the roost when the temperature drops below 60 degrees.
The group discovered the roost after Bohn, then a Coral Gables resident and Florida International University professor, heard the bats calling and found they were foraging at the Granada Golf Course. For weeks, Bohn and hundreds of volunteers tried to track down their home. In September 2014, a Miami Bat Squad member recognized their calls while walking her dog past the Alhambra Circle house. The group then watched as the bats flew out of the Spanish-tile roof.
"We were ecstatic," bat squad director Giselle Hosein recalls, "and hopeful that we could learn more about these bats."
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The best-case scenario would be for the bats to be allowed to stay in the house, says Bohn, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. She believes there are about eight living in the house and says that if someone moved in, they would barely know the bats are there, though she adds, "I guess that's me; I'm a wildlife biologist."
Second best, Bohn says, would be to leave the bats alone until March and then close their entryway after verifying there are no pups. Though she can appreciate wanting to fix a dilapidated house, the Florida bonneted bat is a species so rare it's on the same level as tigers and rhinos, and very little is known about it. If there are eight in that roof, they could represent 2 percent of the number left in the wild.
"We're not just talking about some bat," Bohn says. "It's one of the rarest mammals in the world we're talking about.