PARKER COUNTY — Down a gravel road just east of Mineral Wells sits a plain metal building that looks like any other industrial warehouse. But according to the proprietor, there is nothing like it on the planet.
The clue is a small plaque by the front door which reads: Bat World Sanctuary.
"We're the only bat sanctuary in the country," said Amanda Lollar. "There's no other place for these animals to go."
As she speaks, a half-dozen fruit bats bats fluttered around us in a screened-in aviary. They flew between us, then settled beneath a canopy, and snuggled into a tight group. They've checked us out and are going back to bed. It was the middle of the afternoon.
As they do every day, Lollar and two helpers launch into their complicated ritual to care for about 200 bats, cutting up mounds of bananas for fruit bats; making sure there are meal worms for the ones that eat insects; spreading sheets over the soft matted floor to catch droppings (the sheets are washed daily).
Amanda Lollar devotes her life to bats.
"By helping bats, we're also helping the public and a species as a whole," she said. "I love them. I want other people to love them as well. Bats are critical to the environment, critical to the ecosystem."
So she takes in injured bats. Orphans. Refugees from the exotic pet trade. Bats that — without Lollar — might be euthanized.
Among all the small bats hanging beneath the canopy is one about the size of a small dog.
"She's an Indonesian flying fox. She was retired form the Calgary Zoo. She has a wingspan of about six feet," Lollar said.
The thought of a six-foot bat spooked us.
"She's elderly. She can't fly. But she does like to climb around a lot," Lollar reassured us.
She said she makes it easy for them to climb, or fly, or even play on fabric towers.
"They pull and tug on those just like a puppy would play with a stuffed animal.," Lollar explained. "They love things like that."
Mexican free-tailed bats snuggle into little hammocks and pouches in a darkened room off to the side. She reaches into a pouch and pulls out a bat about the size of a mouse.
"This is the most common species in Texas," Lollar said. "These little bats can eat between three and 5,000 insects per night."
That's part of why she just opened this 6,000-square-foot sanctuary in western Parker County — to protect these flying mammals.
"It also gives us the opportunity to educate people and show people what they're really like, and destroy the myths and horrible notions that surround bats," Lollar said.
She moved into the sanctuary in late August after running a storefront sanctuary in Mineral Wells for about 20 years.
Lollar started caring for bats after finding an injured one in 1988.
"Why do I give them sanctuary? Well, no one else is doing it," she said.
Lollar said she rehabilitates and releases 80 percent of bats that are brought in, although she emphasizes people should not handle bats because of rabies. But Bat World provides a permanent home to about 200 healthy bats that can't be released — either because they're not indigenous or they have problems that would make it hard to survive in the wild.
According to Science Magazine, bats contribute about $23 billion a year to agriculture by controlling insects and pollinating plants. But since 2006, a fungus called white-nose syndrome has killed 80 percent of bat colonies in 25 states, mainly in the northeast.
Texas Parks and Wildlife reported earlier this year that the fungus has not been found in Texas. Here, the threat to bats is development.
For example, the historic Baker Hotel is Mineral Wells is slated for renovation. Amanda Lollar says that alone could displace about 100,000 bats that might be living there.
But she's got the perfect new home for them: The bat castle. It's a cinder block barn with beams and nooks and netting perfect for a large bat colony.
"Every surface in this entire castle is equipped for a bat," Lollar said.
She's been waiting for two years for bats to move in; not really waiting so much as working, endlessly feeding and cleaning. Donors support the registered non-profit. It's a way to help, without getting too close.
"I don't think they're creepy," Lollar said. "I think they're adorable."