CORVALLIS — Jill Jackson likes to have a lot of animals around.
At her upholstery workshop a few miles outside Alsea, she keeps a doghouse, a cat enclosure, and a number of squirrel and bird feeders. She also likes to put out fish heads and other offerings to attract wildlife such as bears and cougars to her rural property.
"I'm like Snow White, only a little more creepy," she says with a laugh.
But a special place in her heart is reserved for an animal that many people tend to shy away from: the bat.
Jackson's affinity for bats began when she spotted one clinging to the side of a barn in the middle of the afternoon.
"I just went right up to it and held it and put it back," she recalled. "I just fell in love with it."
A few years later, after she started volunteering at Chintimini Wildlife Center in Corvallis, the relationship deepened.
"I realized there was an opportunity to learn about them," Jackson said. "Then I fell into that aspect of wanting to protect the little guys, because they need an advocate."
Jackson blames Hollywood for perpetuating a false image of bats as marauding monsters. While it's true that one species of vampire bat feeds on the blood of mammals, its range is restricted to parts of Central and South America and it only rarely attacks humans.
Oregon is home to 15 bat species, all of which feed on insects, including mosquitoes and other pests. They may be small — the hoary bat, our state's largest species, has a wingspan of 16 inches and weighs just 1 ounce — but they are voracious feeders, capable of devouring up to 600 insects an hour on their nightly hunts, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Bats also get a bad rap for spreading rabies, Jackson believes. Even though the flying mammals can contract rabies and pass it to humans, less than one-tenth of 1 percent carry the disease and those that do are rarely aggressive, ODFW reports.
In her experience, Jackson said, bats are gentle, docile creatures that generally get along well with people.
"Bats are incredibly intelligent. They're like little dogs," she said. "When you raise them or handle them like I did at Chintimini, they recognize your voice. They come when you call them."
As her knowledge of bats grew, Jackson got connected with Bat World Sanctuary, a conservation organization based in Texas, home of the world's largest bat colony. She is now one of several people in Oregon listed as bat rescue resources on the Bat World website.
Now, when Oregonians find a bat in or around their home and don't know what to do, they frequently contact Jackson. In most cases, she said, she is able to ease the caller's fears and offer advice on how to ensure the animal's safe return to the wild. Only rarely does she have to get directly involved.
"It's the ones that are aggressive and they stick around that might be injured or they might have rabies. That's when I'll get in my truck and drive there and rescue the bat," she said.
"They call me a bat rescuer, but in my opinion I'm a human rescuer."
Jackson's most memorable bat rescue involved a baby Myotis lucifugus, commonly known as a little brown bat, which she found on the sidewalk.
"He was covered in mites and had no fur," she recalled. "He would have died had I not picked him up."
Jackson gave the orphaned bat pup a name — Buster — and took him to Chintimini Wildlife Center for a full exam. Then she brought him home to her Alsea shop for rehabilitation and eventual release.
She modified a wire-mesh reptile cage as a habitat, mounting it to an interior wall of her shop, and fed Buster by hand until he could learn to eat on his own.
"The clock is ticking with a bat," Jackson noted. "He was born in March, and they have to be on their own by June."
She even set up an 8-by-10-foot screened tent in the yard where she taught Buster to fly — no small challenge for an animal that had nearly died after falling out of its nest.
"He was terrified of flying," Jackson recalled. "And I had to take that fear away because a bat that doesn't fly can't survive."
Eventually, the time came when Buster was able to fly and catch his own food. When she thought he was ready, Jackson opened a small sliding door on his cage that led into a bat house on the outside of the building.
The little bat wasted no time, spreading his wings and flying off to make his own way in the wild.
"Now he's out there somewhere, making babies," she said.
It's been several years since baby Buster left the safety of his artificial nest to try his luck in the wide world, but Jackson says he's been coming home every summer since to nest somewhere around her shop. It may be impossible to tell for sure that it's the same little brown bat, but Jackson insists there's no doubt in her mind.
"After my workday, I'll pour myself my little cocktail and go sit outside," she said.
"And every day after sundown there's this one little bat that flies right past my head, and that's Buster — because nobody else would do that."