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Bats in the Belfry

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Administrators at Solomonville Elementary School are starting to get embarrassed. "People come in here and they say, 'Ew, what stinks so bad?"' says Gloria England, a secretary at the school in Solomon, Ariz.

The problem might drive anyone a little batty.

Living and roosting in the school's attic from late March until early October are more than 3,000 females of the genus Myotis--a type of bat.

They reside under the roof, but the kamikaze creatures also get out and about the school grounds, swooping down on teachers and students in hallways and classrooms, screeching noisily, and leaving behind a putrid smell.

If that weren't enough to get most youngsters thinking about ghosts and goblins, the school was also a prison in the late 1800's, and criminals were hanged in the courtyard.

But most students at the K-8 school seem to have gotten used to sharing their campus with the beady-eyed mammals.

"They don't really bother me that much," says Jacob Eseobedo, an 8th grader. "They smell when it's humid, but it's the girls who it bothers the most--they scream." The boys, he explains, just throw things at the visiting bats and welcome the distraction in class.

According to Dave Cagle, a game specialist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the bats aren't cause for alarm. Some 30 species of bats live in the state. (None of them are of the vampire variety.) In fact, bats are even a protected species in Arizona, one that depends on such artificial roosts as Solomonville Elementary for survival. And the chances of a bat carrying rabies, Cagle adds, are slim.

But Jim Shereck, the school's principal and guidance counselor and also the superintendent for the single-school Solomonville school district, worries that the creatures pose a health and safety hazard.

Although no bat-related injuries have occurred since the uninvited guests took up residence in the school decades ago, Shereck warns that you never know what could happen. "Students are inquisitive," he says, and they might try to pick one up.

Last year, Shereck spent $7,000 to get rid of the bats, but it didn't work. This year, the school has hired a different company that plans to lure them to new bat houses it will build off campus. "They say the reason they come here is because there are no alternatives," Shereck says.

Because the bats migrate south when it starts getting cold, they're usually not around to take part in Halloween festivities. But they aren't forgotten, England says. The attic has accumulated years and years worth of bat guano, she says, and "it smells almost all the time."

--Laura Miller

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