Inside Report: Bats make school gym their own

Nature has ways of reminding us, both big and small, that humans do not have as much control over our environment as we would like to think.

In a more and more urban and wired society, exposure to wildlife gets carried conveniently into our lives through a television screen or handheld device. But every now and then, the creatures spring forward to remind us they’re still not so far away.

Mountain lion sightings often served this awakening role when I worked in a mountainous part of northern Arizona earlier in my journalism career.

Nervous, and often new, residents who called the newspaper would slowly come to the realization that cougars don’t see property lines, and so, in reality, it was the homeowner who has moved into the cougars’ turf and not the other way around.

Though less dramatic and with far less threatening teeth, the furry Mexican free-tailed bats, which took up residence recently at Dutchtown High School’s gym and pooped their way into media attention and taxpayer expense, serve as yet another excellent reminder from Mother Nature.

No doubt, these bats lack an environmentalist agenda to heighten Ascension Parish residents’ appreciation for the natural world.

The bats, by all accounts, were just doing what bats do. They found a dark, cozy spot behind gym gutters that were high up in the air and near where the action has likely always been for them and their bat ancestors.

Mexican free-tailed bats, experts say, are mosquito-eating machines and are distributed widely across the United States, including in mosquito-rich Louisiana.

Their hideout at Dutchtown is not very far — as the bat flies — from Bluff Swamp and Spanish Lake, not to mention the mosquito-attracting lights around the school campus off La. 73.

Chad Lynch, the Ascension Parish schools’ director of planning and construction, said he can remember as a child, just for fun, throwing up a white sock in the air above his Gonzales-area home to see bats swarm around the sock.

Lynch and other school officials recognized that the bats were not going to stop seeing the Dutchtown area as a great spot to be. It was incumbent on school officials, in combination with laws that bar the killing of bats, to make Dutchtown High a less inviting home in a hot mosquito-hunting area.

In Arizona, mountain lions — which are game animals — are sometimes killed if they become a problem, but officials often focus first on preventative measures to avoid attracting cougars in the first place.

At Dutchtown High, the gutters came down and the replacements will be redesigned.

Without any nooks in which to hide, the bats went away and were likely forced to find another spot near the Bluff Swamp, school officials said.

Lynch said his recent experience with the bats has caused him to rethink how future school buildings will be designed. He said that thinking came into play recently as contractors finished unrelated flood-proofing work on the Dutchtown gym complex.

He said the newly installed equipment, as originally built, would have provided ledges in which birds and other creatures could have nested.

“I started telling them, ‘You know, don’t create spots for me that are places where critters can hang out,’ ” Lynch said.

He said the contractors countered the gym already has places where birds were nesting.

“And I’m like, ‘I don’t care. Don’t create more,’ ” he said.

The contractors covered the ledges with a metal strip.

David J. Mitchell covers Ascension Parish for The Advocate. He can be reached at dmitchell@theadvocate.com.