by Carol Dunn
HUERFANO —The land of Carlsbad is batty. It is world-famous for its enormous caverns, which are home to millions of rock sticks growing out of the ceiling and floor, plus bats and bat poop. The scientific name for bat poop is guano. I know this because there were signs in the caverns telling you where to look for the bat poop, aka. guano. I did not realize what a tourist attraction guano could be. But, let me warn you, if you are going there just to see the guano, save your time. Guano is black. And they use one-watt light bulbs to illuminate the entire 24-billion square feet of the caverns, so it’s so dark in there you can’t actually see any kind of poop, bat or otherwise. You just have to take comfort knowing it’s there.
If you are not a big fan of bats, go there in the winter while the bats are vacationing in Mexico. Yes, bats need to take a break once in a while, too. While they are revered in Carlsbad and are the only living thing allowed to poop in the caverns, they still have a tough job. According to one of the cavern signs, one bat will eat thousands of bugs each night. You try that and tell me if you don’t need a vacation.
Years ago we accompanied a school group which went to Carlsbad specifically to see the bats. You may not know it, but bat watching is a very big deal. People flock to Carlsbad from all over the world to watch the bats fly out of the mouth of the caverns at dusk. While to some of you that sounds kind of goofy, it is a huge tourist draw. And it is made even more fascinating by the fact that bats are real prima donnas that don’t want to be watched, don’t want to be counted, don’t want to be filmed and really just want to fly into a head full of hair and get tangled up so they can make those creepy squeaking sounds and give you lice.
Since park rangers know the bats are “shy,” there are like a hundred QUIET signs at the amphitheater/ viewing area at the mouth of the caverns, and spectators have to sit down and be totally silent for a half hour before the bats wake up and decide to go bug-hunting. And you are not allowed to make even one peep while the bats are flying past or it will mess up their sonar and they will crash into a rock, or worse fly into your hair. Now, I don’t know if you’ve spent much time around 10- and 11-year-old kids, but they are loathe to remain totally silent AND SEATED for even three minutes, let alone an hour. But under threat of being dipped in guano, our group managed to communicate in hand gestures and tiny whispers. That spectacle alone was worth the bus ride, during which they more than made up for that one hour of forced silence. Riding nine hours with a bus load of kids will pretty much drive away every living bat for a hundred mile radius. Matter of fact it could drive them batty.