6,000 bats, trapped
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
The caller sounded panicked. Daylight was fading, and so was hope. Who knows how long they were trapped in the cave.
"He said he needed quick, nimble bodies," recalled Charlotte Maidhof, a Citrus County resident whose husband and son are involved in the Boy Scouts.
Within minutes, Maidhof sent an e-mail to scouts, beckoning them to a remote cave in southeastern portion of the Withlacoochee State Forest.
"They need bodies, shovels, trowels and 5 gallon buckets," she wrote.
At risk was a colony of 6,000 bats, mostly females and their babies, sealed inside the cave by heavy silt pushed by heavy rains. If they didn't get out soon, all could die.
On Wednesday, after some heroic efforts, the mosquito-eating bats were flying free once again.
"Some would think you were crazy for doing it because it was a lot of effort," said Julie Royer of nearby Holder, who helped at the site with her husband and son. "They might not think bats are important, but they are to our environment. I'm relieved that they weren't doomed."
Liberating the horde of flying mammals proved far more challenging than first expected.
The ordeal began Tuesday afternoon as thunderstorms raged. A handful of scouts showed up to aid efforts already under way by the state Division of Forestry.
It was too dangerous to go near the mouth of the cave -- down a steep and jagged ravine -- so volunteers frantically worked to slow the water, or at least divert it from the great cavern below.
They pushed hay bales and piled limestone shards into makeshift dams. It seemed to work for a while, but rain continued to pound, carrying even more silt to the cave entrance.
Drenched and covered with mud, the workers began to pack up about 7 p.m. As he walked back to his truck, Vince Morris, a supervisor with the Division of Forestry in Brooksville, wondered if his shoveling had gone to waste.
As the rain tapered off, a rainbow emerged. "Maybe there is hope," Morris said, smiling. The group planned to return Wednesday.
But Robert Brooks, an experienced cave explorer from Brooksville, had other ideas. After downing a can of Coke, he fished for his hard hat and flashlight.
The bats in the cave are known as southeastern bats, or myotis austroriparius, and have been considered for protected species lists. Researchers are not sure how many there are in Florida, but the population is in the tens of thousands.
The sheer number of females in the Citrus County cave gave the situation an added sense of urgency.
Bats are slow to reproduce, so the loss of several thousand would be a considerable blow to the population, said Cindy Marks, director of the nonprofit Florida Bat Center in Port Charlotte.
What's more, there are less than a dozen "maternity caves" in Florida. Bats flock to the caves in late March to start having their young. The babies, called pups, are born hairless and the humidity of the caves keeps them warm.
Citrus County once had more caves, but one was closed by a private landowner and the entrance to another was plugged up by the bats themselves. They are prodigious poopers.
The discovery of a new habitat was welcome news to researchers, who have been trying to better understand the species. The Citrus County cave was found earlier this year by a group of explorers.
Among them was Robert Brooks, a 28-year-old with a goatee and an easygoing demeanor.
'Cyclone of bats'
While others gazed at the rainbow over the cave late Tuesday, Brooks headed back down the hill, his brown boots caked in mud.
The rain had stopped but water continued to flow from the hilly terrain and into the cave
The mouth of the cave is barely big enough for a person to slide into and leads to a 240-foot crawlway Brooks calls the meatgrinder before opening into large rooms.
Brooks squeezed into the hole, the water pouring over his body, and peered into an open area .
"It looked like a cyclone of bats," he reported later. "There were hundreds of them trying to get out."
Some attempted to crawl across the ceiling to avoid the water below; others, amazingly, seemed to be willing to take the plunge.
"I saw things I never thought I would see bats do," Brooks said.
He hurriedly plucked bats out of the water, at least 20 by his count, and handed them to others, who placed the bats on the dry walls of the cave entrance. They squeaked and shuddered for a moment, then flew off.
As he did this, a group of men descended down the rocky slope. They were Brooks' friends, all members of the Tampa Bay Area Grotto, a cave club.
Taking turns, they chiseled away at the limestone opening of the cave. As night fell, the opening grew larger.
The bats darted from the cave, free at last.
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