It started on a warm summer night on the bluffs of Guttenberg one year in the 1970s. An 8-year-old boy was sitting outside his father’s restaurant, viewing the dusk sky. But there were more than just shimmering stars above. There were these fleeting glances of dark, nocturnal figures racing across the sky. There were … bats.
“One flew over my head, and I said, ‘Whoa, what was that?’”
And so begins the saga not of Bruce Wayne, but of Joe D’Angeli, New Jersey’s own “Batman.” Not a Caped Crusader, but a lover of bats all the same. The story proves that experiences in a young child’s upbringing live on forever, and can take on greater significance when he has grown into an adult.
For D’Angeli, it’s not been so much an interest as a calling. A calling to understand, work with, and safeguard one of society’s most misunderstood creatures, and one which is vital to the planet’s ecosystem.
For bats aren’t what Hollywood and fiction writers make them out to be, nefarious creatures stalking human prey to swoop down on them and cause havoc. Not only do bats not seek conflict with humans, they don’t bother with the animal world much either. Their true interest is surviving by eating insects as food, a pursuit which is helpful to man and the rest of the world as well.
“He said most importantly you shouldn’t be afraid of them.” – Joe D’Angeli
His father, a nature lover himself, taught his son all about the flying mammals, and debunked the myths for him.
“He said most importantly you shouldn’t be afraid of them,” D’Angeli said. “He said they’re nothing like they are in the movies.”
D’Angeli is celebrating his 20th year in the world of bats, which began with some notice in the media as he started out in 1993.
White nose syndrome
His passion took a major hit in 2006, with the advent of white nose syndrome, a fungus from Europe that decimated a sizable portion of the bat population in North America.
Since that year, millions of hibernating bats have died from the disease, named for a cold-loving white fungus typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats. The syndrome causes bats to awaken more often during hibernation and use up the stored fat reserves they need to get through winter. Infected bats often emerge too soon from hibernation, and usually freeze or starve to death.
“It came here from visitors in European caves,” D’Angeli said. “It quickly spread by coming to our caves, and that’s how this catastrophic chain of events happened.”
Catastrophic it was, with between five to seven million bats lost in 19 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces. The Garden State was among those heavily hit by the disease, and it had a profound effect on the state’s bat population, which serves a great purpose.
“In our area, bats eat everything from mosquitoes to different types of crop pests, grasshoppers, different types of agricultural pests, like corn and earworms and different types of beetles,” D’Angeli said.
The down side was very evident.
“We were getting pounded by mosquitoes,” said the Englewood native. “This resulted in people using chemicals (to thwart them), which is worse for people and the environment.”
The former Fairview resident is at the forefront of efforts to assist the bat population fight white nose syndrome. He will be attending a conference on bats in western New Jersey next month.
Wildlife Conservation Center
D’Angeli runs the Wildlife Conservation and Education Center in Ridgefield Park in Bergen County, which has also become permanent home to unwanted, abandoned, and confiscated exotic animals. Reptiles, small animals, and giant tarantulas find a home at the center. His “Bat Cave” is the only facility specializing in, and focusing on, bats and bat conservation in the New York/New Jersey area. His facility is also the area’s only one housing live exotic bats from around the world.
The center has proposed adding a specially designed wing to treat and rehabilitate bats afflicted with white nose syndrome.
Presenter and educator
The former New Milford resident is a regular at libraries and schools across the state, and specifically in Hudson County. He has presented programs at the Weehawken and Kearny libraries, and public and private schools in Jersey City, Hoboken, North Bergen, West New York, and Union City.
He is also a staple at animal and pet shows, zoos, and nature centers.
D’Angeli regularly presents at the Meadowlands Environment Center in Lyndhurst. In late October, he presented his “Bats, Spiders and Snakes, Oh My!” program at the center in observance of Halloween. Last month, he appeared at the 6th Annual Meadowlands Pet Expo in Secaucus at the Meadowlands Expo Center.
He is a state and federally licensed bat educator and exhibitor, former zookeeper, and veterinary technician.
D’Angeli and his bats and other animals have been covered by The New York Times, The Record of Hackensack, “Live with Regis and Kathy Lee,” and most recently, The History Channel’s “Monster Quest” and Science Channel’s “Oddities” shows.
D’Angeli even went so far as to stage “Batstock,” a three-day festival focusing on, and raising funds for, bats and a way to fight the disease decimating their ranks.
For more information
The conservation center is open to the public every weekend throughout the year. For more information, call (201) 257-2231, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.njbatman.com.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.