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Off to the bat cave

By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
LEASBURG, Mo. – Rob Mies is coming to Missouri’s first ever Bat Festival on Saturday, April 21, at Onondaga Cave State Park. And he’s bringing a few of his furry friends.
Mies is the director and founder of the Organization for Bat Conservation, the largest grass-roots bat conservation program in the United States, with headquarters at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The organization presents some 1,500 live shows a year to educate people about one of the world’s most unique, and misunderstood, animals.
Mies, pronounced “my-ess,” has become somewhat of a celebrity; his work has been featured in television documentaries and he has made appearances on shows hosted by Ellen Degeneres, Conan O’Brien and Regis and Kelly. Mies does the talking, but his friends are the stars.
“We’ll be bringing to the festival a variety of bats, including big brown bats, which are found locally and are critically important because they eat a lot of garden and agricultural pests,” Mies said. “We’ll have straw-colored fruit bats from Africa, which are large and kind of look like a Chihuahua with wings. They have a really beautiful yellow color. We’ll also have the largest bat in the world, the Malayan flying fox. It has a 6-foot wing span, and weighs three pounds.”
His talks will range from how a homeowner can humanely evict bats from the attic, to how a gardener can attract them to eat bugs.
 Missouri State Parks got the idea for holding a bat festival after U-Haul, the truck rental company, decided to feature Onondaga Cave and its bats in graphics on the sides of some 1,900 new trucks scheduled to hit the road in mid-October. The “Venture Across America” graphics program includes little known facts and mysteries found in the various states.
The Missouri graphic will explain echolocation, the method by which bats communicate, for travelers who go to uhaul.com. The graphic features a bat flying over a map of the state, with a star pointing out the location of Onondaga Cave State Park. A second bat snoozes upside down. Both are red bats, which are found in the woods of the state park.
“We chose the red bat because it’s a very friendly looking bat,” said Joanne Fried, a spokeswoman for U-Haul, who met Mies and his friends in preparation for the unveiling of the first Missouri truck at the Bat Festival. The festival will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, with the unveiling at noon.
“He will definitely make most people change their minds about the perception of bats,” Fried said of Mies. “They have personalities. I went home and told my husband, ‘We’re getting a bat house in our backyard’.”
Bat houses – along with bat jewelry, bat puppets, bat mobiles and all things batty – will be available for purchase at the festival. The event also will have barbecue, bluegrass music, volunteers from caving organizations and booths manned by master gardeners and naturalists. Onondaga Cave, one of the state’s most stunning, will be open for tours during the festival.
The festival actually starts on Friday, April 20, but is open that first day only to some 600 pre-registered school children, who will be treated to their own show with Mies and to free cave tours. On Saturday, cave tours will be discounted for the public. The tours will be $10 for adults, and $5 for kids 6 to 12. The regular price is $12 and $7.  All other programs at the festival are free.
Bats are an integral part of the chain of life, and play an important role in the entire ecosystem by eating insects that can be pests to people and agriculture. Onondaga Cave contains up to 1,000 bats, which are among the 68 species found in the cave, from tiny invertebrates to grotto salamanders.
“People coming into the cave should be able to see bats, mostly little browns and eastern pipstrelles, which are also called tri-colored bats,” said Maria Potter, superintendent at Onondaga Cave State Park. “They usually are on the ceiling near the air-lock entrance. Because it’s early spring, they’re starting to really wake up and move around. You may see them flying near the boat dock area or the Lily Pad Room.”
And, as one of the many myths that Mies and his group try to dispel, bats do not get tangled in your hair and do not attack people. You may even find they have a pleasant personality.
Onondaga Cave State Park is located seven miles south of the Interstate 44 Leasburg exit on Highway H in Crawford County. For more information about the park and the event, contact the park at (573) 245-6576 or visit mostateparks.com. Missouri State Parks is a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.