- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

BOLINGBROOK, Ill. (AP) - When Sharon Peterson tries to book a hotel room, she matter-of-factly informs the receptionist about her traveling companions.

They don’t need beds to sleep, and they won’t raid the mini fridge. And they hang around — literally — until dark.

But some not-so-pet-friendly hotels react with a case of the heebie-jeebies when she tells them her traveling companions are bats.

A Bolingbrook school librarian by day, the 54-year-old Peterson’s other job finds her educating audiences of all ages about the often misunderstood creatures.

“I want them to realize not only are bats vital to our environment, we live in an ecosystem that needs all of our players, everyone doing its part,” says the proud owner of 13 bats.

Peterson, aka Bat Lady, knew she had an audience 20 years ago when she and her daughter went to an exhibit on bats at the Field Museum, and Peterson thought her Girl Scout troop could do a presentation of its own.

Peterson started asking shoppers she met at the grocery store and mall: “What do you think of bats?”

“They were like, ‘Eww, they’re gross, and they’re scary,’ and all that,” an unfazed Peterson said. “And I thought there really is this need.”

Her daughter eventually lost interest, but the Girl Scouts’ presentation at the New Lenox library marked the beginning of the Bat Lady.

“That’s when things kind of took off for us,” she says.

Today, she does more than 150 educational shows a year at schools, garden clubs, parties and libraries.

Her husband fills in when she’s in school, and together they raise Egyptian fruit bats and African straw-colored bats. Peterson is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — her bats are not pets — and subject to inspections of a 17-foot-long flight cage, built as an addition to their New Lenox home.

Their digs are a tricked-out Batcave, with humidity controls, special lighting, and air conditioning and heating separate from the rest of the house.

“It’s an environment made just for them,” she said.

Every night, Peterson serves the bats at least seven varieties of fresh fruit and gourmet lettuce. These species are picky eaters, preferring the sweet, “really juicy” apples, not the “woodsy kind,” and deep red grapes.

After 20 years as the Bat Lady, the image of a 5-foot-9 mom standing on her tippy toes to reach bats hanging from the ceiling doesn’t get as many head turns in her neighborhood. Neither do strolls with her skunks, Baxter and Bella, whom she walks on a leash at dusk.

Peterson tailors her animal-related message depending on the audience, but generally aims to dispel some myths.

No, bats are not blind, and no, the mammals aren’t pests, but the “unsung pollinator” of bananas and agave — hence, the tequila industry owes a lot to bats, Peterson said.

Getting students and adults to appreciate bats, Peterson said, might help lessen human threats to populations from habitat destruction and wind farms.

“They’re such an important part of our world,” she said.

And that’s not batty at all.

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Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, https://bit.ly/1KlsWte

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Information from: Daily Herald, https://www.dailyherald.com


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