AUSTIN (KXAN) — Without his love of animals, Dianne Odegard joked it’s unlikely she would have ever ended up with Lee Mackenzie. Thankfully, that wasn’t a hurdle for Mackenzie, who now spends his Saturdays lovingly hand-feeding baby bats.
The couple runs the Austin Bat Refuge in the backyard of their quaint yellow home in the Mueller area. A massive flight cage, which doubles as an organic garden that attracts moths, takes up most of the yard. Inside are long water troughs or “swoop zones” and a habitat built specifically for bats who have found themselves injured or sick.
“We take bats in from — usually from the public. They find them sometimes on the ground, sometimes roosting low on a wall, sometimes injured, and we give them a home here, we fix them up, and if we possibly can, we let them go back to the wild,” Odegard said.
The most patient of bat enthusiasts often get to see those releases at the Austin “bat bridge” on Congress Avenue, which happen after swarms of bats exit the bridge for their nightly migration.
It’s not a common lifestyle path and while Odegard said they found it through curiosity and a mutual friend, Mackenzie pointed to his wife before laughingly saying, “she dragged me into it.”
Finger pointing aside, both look back to a time when a woman working in Austin as a biologist and bat rehabilitator taught them the basics of bat rehabilitation before moving out of Texas and leaving the two to fill her shoes. The Austin Bat Refuge was born and remains the only bat refuge in the city, Odegard said.
The backyard operation is now a registered nonprofit that operates on the occasional grant but mostly on donations from bat enthusiasts paired with a significant amount of the couple’s time and energy. As Austin nears some of its hottest months, the refuge is taking an influx of baby bats. Many of those babies come without a mother and require regular feedings, which have to be tracked on a white board in the flight cage.
The husband and wife duo are regularly out at the bat bridge, doing educational work and allowing people to see a bat, up close and in person. Mackenzie said people are often shocked at how small bats are, even when fully grown. Their bodies are roughly the size of a chicken nugget.
The refuge has also recently invested in cameras with night vision that allow people at the bridge to see the impressive exodus, even if the bats choose to leave after dark. Those education efforts, paired with the refuge, might help shift the public’s opinion on bats and give children the tools to safely interact with them, Mackenzie said.
If you find a bat that is need of assistance, do not handle it with bare hands. The refuge has put together a video on how to handle a bat here. The couple gives out their cell phones on their website, which you can reach out to for help: (512)695-4116 or (512)799-8847.