Volunteers trying to save 250,000 bats at Houston tourist spot

Bats cling onto the branches of a Banyan tree .

Combined ShapeCaption
Bats cling onto the branches of a Banyan tree .

Houston residents were startled by the sight of hundreds of dead and struggling bats under the Waugh Bridge, CBS News reported.

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The bridge is a popular tourist attraction, and an estimated 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats live under it.

“People gather every night at sunset, that's when they all fly out,” Houston resident KirstiAnn Clifford told CBS News. “It's kind of a landmark in Houston.”

As the floodwaters rose, thousands of bats were left trapped underneath the bridge.

"The water was rising and you could hear them make high-pitched noises," Clifford said. "There was nowhere for them to go. Some of them were trying to swim away. It was actually pretty heartbreaking."

"Once they're wet it's really difficult," according to Michelle Camara, owner of Southern Wildlife Rehab and director of Bat World Alamo. "If they can climb onto something and dry out then they have a chance, but they still run the risk of pneumonia."

Bats can tread water, but they can't swim, Camara said.

Bats are useful in the environment because they consume almost three tons of insects per day, according to the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.

Mexican free tails can live for up to 20 years, Camara told CBS News.

"They're eating 1,000 bugs an hour, 6,000 bugs a night. That's a lot of bugs," she said. "Take away those bats, you're going to be in big trouble."

Flooding and standing water can breed mosquitoes, Camara said.

"Because of the fact that Houston's flooding so much, they'll really need those bats afterwards. They already have a mosquito problem because of standing water," Camara said. "Without the bats we'd have a lot more issues with diseases."

Equipped with nothing but umbrellas, tennis rackets and broken tree branches, several people gathered along the bridge Sunday to help rescue the drowning bats. They leaned over the side, offering bats something to grab onto.

Travis Street was walking across the bridge with his girlfriend when he saw about half a dozen people helping with the rescue.

"A lot of the bats were floating away dead or trying to swim," Street told CBS News. "They would grab whatever they could."

Eventually, more volunteers joined the effort, bringing gloves, nets and plastic containers to help transport the bats once they were brought to dry land.

"They have to be completely dry before they fly off," Street said. "Obviously, they were soaking wet."

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