Saturday, February 1, 2020

Still Life with Robin: Nix on the Bat!

S.M. Bishop via Creative Commons

by Peggy Robin

Oh, how I hate to take on the Girl Scouts, an organization I greatly admire and have supported for years -- mainly through copious purchases of Samoas and Thin Mints. But I just can’t get behind their latest move. They have approached the DC Council with a proposal to name as DC’s official State Mammal the little brown bat. (Read the news here:

It’s an endangered species – I get that – and the designation would give it a higher profile in public consciousness, helping in the fight to save it from extinction. But the designation of State Mammal serves other purposes – mainly projecting an attractive image of the state as a tourist draw – and so the state mammal designation is typically given to an animal that visitors would be happy to view in its native habitat. It's often something magnificent, or at least cute, and usually having some positive associations with the region. That means you don’t choose something people worry could be rabid. And you don’t pick an animal that in pop culture calls to mind a zillion scary vampire movies. And especially not if it's something that people would hate to have fly into their hair when they’re out for a moonlit stroll.

Let’s look at what other states have done by way of comparison:

Take Tennessee: Its state mammal is the Tennessee Walking Horse. 

Wyoming has the American Bison.

Twelve states have chosen the white-tailed deer: Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin. I should note that all but four of these states have more than one designated state mammal. Wisconsin, for example, has three, with the badger and the dairy cow – both icons of the state – in addition to the boring, ubiquitous, white-tailed deer.

Having more than one official state mammal is a common strategy for states that want to appeal to multiple constituencies. Alaska, for example, has three: the bowhead whale, the Alaskan malamute, and the moose – all animals that remind you of the state in some distinctive way.

Now we come to those states that have already chosen the bat as a state mammal. There are four of them – Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Hawaii – but all four have other, much cuter state mammals as alternatives. Two of them -- Texas and Oklahoma -- have the same species of bat, the Mexican free-tailed bat, but Texas also has the nine-banded armadillo, and Oklahoma has TWO other state mammals, the majestic buffalo (bison) and the cute raccoon. 

Virginia has chosen the big-eared bat – and it’s got to be one of the nastiest looking creatures I’ve ever seen. Take a look: But Virginia also has the sleek American foxhound as its high-class version -- something you'd be proud to have in a portrait hanging over the fireplace mantle in your grand suburban McMansion. in what used to be horse country.

Hawaii’s got the best excuse for picking the ugly hoary bat as one of its two state mammals: It’s the only mammal native to Hawaii that lives on land. There were NO walking land animals in Hawaii prior to human settlement. And the ones that humans brought with them – notably cats rats, and pigs (which later became feral pigs) – have been, ecologically speaking, walking disasters. Hawaii’s other designated state mammal is a marine mammal, the monk seal.

Seeing so many states with multiple state mammals, I suppose we could accommodate the bat, if it will please the Girl Scouts and help with conservation efforts – but let’s be sure to designate something else at the same time. Something a lot of people have seen here in DC. Deer? Well, as we know, there are far too many states already with that choice…and anyway, gardeners here hate their voracious guts. How about the red fox? It’s smart and good looking – but what about its reputation for being sneaky? Will there be too many jokes about who’s guarding the henhouse? And it’s no joke that you need to guard your small pets from roving, aggressive foxes. So perhaps not the best choice.

I propose something friendlier. Here’s my idea: The most beloved mammal in DC lives right here in our neighborhood, a resident of the National Zoo: our pandas. They've been with us ever since the first ones, Ling Ling and Hsing-Hsing, came over in 1972. Who says we can’t select an immigrant? As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us in stirring song, “Immigrants Get the Job Done!” Pandas have become iconic animals for our city that longs to be a state. Why not make it official?

So, how about it, DC Council? Two state mammals: The Little Brown Bat; and the Giant Black and White Panda

You can see the list of state mammals* here:

(* Note: There are some errors and omissions on the website above. For example, it shows the big-eared bat as Virginia’s ONLY state mammal – but when you go to the website listing all of Virginia’s state symbols,, you see that there’s another mammal, the American Foxhound.)

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays. 

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