Letter from Europe

Bats and happiness

Issue no. 2020/34

Picture above: photo © Rinus Baak / dreamstime.com


It hasn’t been an easy year. Not for us - and probably not for you. But spare a thought for bats who have endured some pretty hefty reputational damage in 2020. Bats are the only flying mammals - and among the few creatures that seem to have a perennial smile on their faces.

Dear fellow travellers

It is time for us to retreat from our desks, lock the door of the scriptorium and snuggle down to watch 2020 slipping into nothingness and night.

It hasn’t been an easy year. Not for us - and probably not for you. But spare a thought for bats who have endured some pretty hefty reputational damage in 2020. Long before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, the Estonian government announced that 2020 would see the humble bat adopted as the national animal of the year. Little did anyone in Tallinn imagine how bats would come to haunt us.

The designation of an animal of the year saw the wild boar hogging the Estonian limelight in 2015. More recently the Eurasian lynx stood centre stage. On New Year’s Day, the Estonian bat must stand aside as the wolf makes its debut appearance as the national animal for 2021.

Here in Berlin, a city which has museums covering everything, it turns out that the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) knows a thing or two about bats. If truth be told, prior to the pandemic the RKI was not much on anyone’s mind. It’s one of those wonderful national institutions that go unnoticed until you suddenly need them. The RKI was founded by Robert Koch in 1891 as the Royal Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases and today it is responsible for disease prevention and control in Germany. Its founding director went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1905.

The RKI turns out to be a rather interesting place. There is a mausoleum where the mortal remains of Robert Koch are interred, plus a small museum which is open to the public. One exhibit there explains how storks, bats and bearded dragons spread disease to humans. Like us, you are surely now making a mental note to avoid bearded dragons in 2021.

Pity the poor bat though. It’s taken a real hammering in 2020. While in some countries in Asia and Africa, entire colonies of bats have been eradicated, at Bourges in central France the bat is still cherished. A long tradition of bat research has propelled the town’s Museum of Natural History into a Mecca for bat lovers. Apart from saving baby bats, the museum’s bat team do a lot to promote wider understanding of the only flying mammal. It sounds like just the sort of good PR that bats need in these pandemic days.

So we’ve pencilled in a trip to Bourges for sometime in 2021 when travel once again becomes possible. As it surely will. Meanwhile, our vote for the most creative new museum for troubled times goes to the Museum of Happiness which opened in Copenhagen this summer. This sounds like just the sort of thing we all need - and perhaps it will help unravel the mystery of how Danes manage to remain upbeat and happy despite having to endure 170 rainy days each year.

There are exhibits on the history of happiness, the science of happiness and the politics of happiness. The focus is on humans. Of course! But, come to think of it, we’ve never seen an unhappy bat. Of all God’s creatures, bats are surely the ones who always seem to have a smile on their faces.

Our thanks go to all our readers and subscribers to hidden europe magazine. We wish everyone the very best for 2021. May it bring good things for humans … and for bats.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)