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TDCJ Driven Batty Over Demolition Plans

by Jo Ellen Nott

A colony of 750,000 bats has upended plans by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to demolish an abandoned warehouse next to the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. The massive building, occupying an entire city block, is home to the furry fliers for six months a year, fascinating a dedicated cadre of locals and tourists alike, who have succeeded in delaying the razing plan at least until 2024.

TDCJ has worried over ten years about the hazardous condition of the structure, an abandoned dry goods storage depot built in the 1930s once used to store merchandise that prisoners produced. With time it has deteriorated so badly that dead trees rise out of its crumbling roof.

Phase One of demolition began in March 2022, when workers knocked down the building’s northern section. Work paused in the spring to allow the bats to return. It was planned to resume once the bats left for their annual migration. But TDCJ is now facing fierce opposition from a bat-loving coalition of locals who want to save the little mammals’ summer home.

Texas likes its bats so much it created a special designation for them: The bat is the state’s official flying mammal. These Mexican free-tailed bats are protected by law and come under the jurisdiction of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Agency (TPWA). When TDJC first tried to demolish the warehouse in 2012, TPWA stopped it, citing an unnecessary loss of bat life.

A local engineer who volunteers at the Baptist church next to the warehouse is one of the Save the Bats movement leaders. Tommy Hoke started the largest save-the-bats Facebook page in town, with over 1,600 members, after learning that the bats’ favorite meal — they eat a LOT of bugs — saves local farmers an estimated $3 million in pesticide costs.

Huntsville City Council member Daiquiri Beebe formed another Facebook group, the Huntsville Bat Society, which has over 1,300 members. Beebe was unsuccessful in getting the council to oppose TDJC’s demolition plan but is continuing her crusade to save the bats’ roost by hosting pro-bat happy hours, as well as protests at City Hall. Beebe has been able to enlist the support of state representative Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd) and Russell Humphrey, a fellow city council member.

The informal coalition of Beebe, Bailes, Humphrey, and Hoke was able to prevail upon TDCJ to pause the demolition until at least 2024 to allow the city to find the bats a new home. 

However, previous efforts to relocate the bats were not successful. Prisoners built nearby bat houses, but the bats refuse to use them. Worse, when prison staff boarded up the windows of the warehouse, bats took to the neighborhood and rained down a shower of guano that Huntsville residents prefer never to experience again.

Source: Texas Monthly

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