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Kerry Monahan Goes to Bat for Bats


Published May 18, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 24, 2016 at 5:15 p.m.

Kerry Monagan - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Kerry Monagan

Name: Kerry Monahan
Town: Rutland
Job: technician, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

In mid-April, wildlife technician Kerry Monahan, 37, and a reporter hiked up to the Northeast's biggest hibernacula, or winter bat shelter, to observe the creatures' spring emergence. Inside, the cave resounded with the plopping of water droplets; outside, the sun was setting behind the quiet mountain and woods.

Anticipating dusk, Monahan checked the voltage on the cave's solar-powered bat-monitoring equipment. She searched the area immediately outside the cave for evidence of sick or dead bats. As twilight and chilly air settled, two dozen bats emerged and fluttered out, zooming around tree branches and sometimes boomeranging back into the cave.

Since 2006, when a fungus called white-nose syndrome was first observed among northeastern hibernating bats, the population has suffered what Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist Scott Darling deems "the most precipitous decline in wildlife in North America in recorded history." This cave was once home to an estimated 500,000 bats; now its winter residents have been reduced by as much as 80 percent.

As a technician and biologist assistant, Monahan visits the cave frequently, gathering information on the health and well-being of the remaining bats.

Born in Bennington, Monahan is a sixth-generation Vermonter, although she also roosted in other states in her early twenties, working as a landscaper, cabbie and bartender. A single mother of two daughters, she's likely the only mom on her block who is rabies-vaccinated, as her job sometimes involves transporting sick bats to a rehabilitation facility.

We followed up with Monahan to learn more.

SEVEN DAYS: You have a "snake boss" and a "bat boss." What kind of work do you perform for each?

KERRY MONAHAN: My snake boss is [wildlife biologist and Snake Project leader] Doug Blodgett, a biologist for 30 years. Alyssa Bennett [wildlife biologist, Small Mammals Project] is my bat boss. I work for both of them equally. Sometimes Alyssa will say, "I need you to go trapping." And Doug will say, "I need you to go snaking" — so that's 24 hours!

SD: Where does your job take you? I know that, for animal safety reasons, you can't disclose exact locations, but can you give us a sense of where you travel over the year, and what it's like to monitor the kinds of animals that might give others the willies?

  • Caleb Kenna

KM: In the summer, during the day, when it warms up, [my work entails] climbing boulders, scrambling up ledges, crossing rocks that are baking in the sun to 124 degrees, and hoping I don't step on a snake. Then, late at night, I might be in a mosquito-infested swamp trapping bats. It's not for the meek.

We've been monitoring the population of [endangered] timber rattlesnakes, as well as other snakes with fungal diseases. When the snakes come out of their dens in the spring, some of them have lesions and blisters on their face caused by a fungus called Ophidiomyces.

This disease was first observed in snakes in the 1990s; it's been observed in Vermont since 2012 or '13, and it's spreading the same way white-nose has. Last week, we saw tons of garter snakes, rat snakes and a few rattlesnakes hanging out by their dens in Rutland County. In Windham County, we've been working to protect the racer, another threatened snake.

This summer, we'll be trapping bats in the Northeast Kingdom. We'll go to Burlington, Milton and Ferrisburgh to check on various bat colonies. And we'll inspect caves and mines in Orange County. We'll do bat maternity colony counts in Georgia, New Haven and Woodstock.

In the winter, I hike up snow-covered mountains to check on the bats, going inside abandoned mines. It's never just a walk in the park — the job calls for agility and endurance. You have to prepare for it.

SD: So, what's in your backpack?

KM: A headlamp, bungee cords, compass — my snake boss gave it to me for when I'm out in unfamiliar territory — binoculars, GPS, a thermal meter, duct tape, hand sanitizer, pencil, waterproof notebooks, caving helmet, caving suit, voltage reader for solar panels, utility knife, mini first-aid kit, a tangerine, some other yummy snacks, water bottle, pair of socks, latex gloves. Sometimes night-vision goggles and bat bags.

SD: Did you set out to do this kind of work?

KM: Originally, I was studying radiology at Southern Vermont College. I once did an X-ray on Leonard Nimoy. But I didn't like the clinical, sterile environment, plus I didn't like not being able to do anything about anyone's condition [to help them improve]. I wanted to work with wildlife, even though some said, "Well, you'll never get a job doing that."

I transferred to Green Mountain College and switched my major to natural resource management. I really like bats, and I found out about white-nose syndrome and felt bad, so I did an independent study. I called Scott Darling and begged him for an internship. He'd just hired Alyssa [Bennett], and so I worked with her. Basically I said, "What can I do for you?"

So, after my student internship, I graduated and continued as a volunteer. I also worked for Al Hicks [a mammal specialist with New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation, now retired], who hired me to hike up a mountain on a regular basis and check that cave's bat-monitoring equipment. Then I got paid [by Vermont Fish & Wildlife]. First Doug hired me, and then Alyssa got a grant to pay me.

It's the best job in the world: I wake up and think, Yay, I get to go to work today!

Although, it's funny, because now I'm working with a sick population, [like I was with radiology]. Some of the bats, it's too late to save them, but you do the best you can.

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