Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
It’s dark, damp, crawls with roaches, and emits screeches that would make your blood run cold. It’s the new and improved Bat Cave, and you may just end up loving it.
For chiropteraphobes, you can imagine the apprehension of taking in the renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum’s popular attraction, opening to the public this Saturday, February 27. To say nothing of their association with vampires, hard-boiled nocturnal superheroes, and other such legendary figures that go bump in the night, bats get a pretty heavy rep for being sinfully ugly airborne varmints clothed in ratty fur, just itching to fly up behind you and sink their teeth into your jugular vein, infecting you with their rabies-infused saliva.
A touch unfair, if not terrifying. Upon examination of the revamped exhibit, which had been an idea of the ROM’s for some twenty years prior to its opening in 1988, we learn that bats play an integral part in the ecosystems that they call home, and have more in common with humans than we might think.
“One of the things we wanted to do was debunk or demystify some of the things about bats that people consider to be bad,” says Dr. Burton Lim, assistant curator of mammology at the ROM’s department of natural history. “Bats do a lot of good things. They dispense seeds, which is great for reforestation. Other bats feed on nectar, so they pollinate flowers. Some feed on blood, yes, but they’re very diverse.”
That’s demonstrated in the cave’s introductory corridor, making up most of what’s new at the exhibit. Entering the hall on the left-hand side is a video presentation of bat portraits, some with pug noses, furry faces, and pointy ears. A mock-up of a bat wing shows they have arms and hands in the same way other mammals do, with skin stretching over their finger bones to make up the wing. Consider it just one way bats are similar to humans—they’re also hairy and warm-blooded, and they nurse their young.
Take another couple of steps past the echolocation mount, which demonstrates how bats navigate with their built-in “radar system,” to see three taxidermied vampire bat specimens, one seizing a hapless mouse with its teeth, the other two sucking blood out of a young, unaware fawn. But out of the more than 1,100 species of bat that exist, only three feed on blood.
Doesn’t stop us people from demonizing—and lionizing—the furry fliers. On the left-hand side you’ll see tableaus of how we’ve depicted bats historically up until the modern day. An ancient Zapotec design portrayed the bat as the manifestation of an angry god, while a Chinese design declares it a lucky symbol. A bat-themed hero and villain make an appearance, being the vampire Nosferatu and the caped crusader himself, Batman.
Getting closer to the entrance, you notice a light display of bat silhouettes flying overhead on the ceiling, acclimatizing you for what’s in store.
Venturing into the cave proper, a 1,700 square-foot mock-up of the St. Clair Cave (a limestone grotto in Jamaica notorious for its bat population), more than eight hundred models spanning twenty species of bat hang from the walls and ceiling. Some animatronics have been added, as you’ll see the flapping of wings in the dark as bats jockey with each other amidst the high-pitched squeaks. On the floor, you’ll see a throbbing patch of what looks like dirt at first glance. Meet the cockroaches. They live in the cave too, feeding on bat droppings. As if anticipating your forthcoming, “eww,” a voice guide asks you, “Well, they live in a cave. What do you expect them to eat?”
The price tag for all of it? Approximately $300,000, says Lim, the money for which came from a $2.75 million federal government grant ear-marked for the construction of a new Roman and Byzantine gallery at the ROM. A small price to pay, he says, for the piqued interest and higher traffic the museum expects as a result of the rejuvenation, and perhaps to shake off the negative connotations we associate with bats.
“Once people get over the fear of bats, they really start to like them,” says Lim. “I know I did. Bats were something I came across as a happy accident, and I’ve been studying them for twenty-five years.”