Holy CNN special, Batman!
Joseph D’Angeli, New Jersey’s own “Batman,” will be featured as part of a coronavirus special hosted by Anderson Cooper.
D’Angeli joins a group of bat experts for “Bats: The Mystery Behind COVID-19,” airing 10 p.m. ET Sunday, June 14.
CNN says the special will look at “the possible connection between bats and many deadly human viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
D’Angeli’s “bat cave” is the Wildlife Conservation and Education Center in Garfield, home of up to 45 bats along with other animals like snakes, lizards, turtles, a kinkajou and a barn owl. Before opening the center in 2017, D’Angeli operated a facility in Ridgefield Park starting in 2010.
“I’ve been working with bats for 25 years,” D’Angeli tells NJ Advance Media. He’s happy that CNN put out the bat signal, and he’s excited to see his bats — “my little sky puppies,” he calls them — in promos for the TV special. D’Angeli is currently preparing for the reopening of his wildlife center, shuttered since March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the exact origin of COVID-19 has not been confirmed, some scientists believe the virus that causes the disease came from Horseshoe bats in southeastern China. It is thought that wet markets in Wuhan, China played a role in the transmission of the virus between species. The program will focus on how human encroachment on bat territory could have had an effect on the transmission of diseases. It will also examine the link between bats and a possible treatment for COVID-19.
“Most of the people that are educated enough to be following this pandemic know that it’s not the bats’ fault,” D’Angeli, 53, tells NJ Advance Media. “I have gotten surprisingly few negative comments. If anything, I have gotten sympathy and sincere thoughts for what’s going to happen to us because of this.”
Other bat experts in the special will include Dr. Shi Zhengli, a virologist in China known as “bat woman” for her studies on coronaviruses that originate in bats. Shi has ventured into caves looking for samples.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a connection has been drawn between bats and a virus. It’s thought that fruit bats are natural hosts of the Ebola virus and that the virus can be transmitted to humans through contact with secretions from infected bats and other animals like gorillas and chimpanzees, according the World Health Organization.
When D’Angeli set out on his quest to become a chiropterologist, or someone who studies bats, he wanted to dispel some of the more insidious blood-sucking notions found in pop culture.
“What I wanted to do was show people what I already knew about bats, that they were kind animals that had this very intricate social structure,” he says. Along the way, he has educated people about threats to bats including white-nose syndrome, a fatal fungal disease.
D’Angeli’s fixation on bats began when he was a child. His father owned the Apartment Lounge, a nightclub and restaurant overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken.
“I would play outside (the restaurant) and I would notice these weird animals flying around the lights outside,” says D’Angeli, who grew up in Ridgefield and New Milford. He also loved Adam West’s “Batman.”
“It was a no-brainer,” he says.
On another occasion, D’Angeli was taking a shortcut home through the woods after a Little League game when he encountered a swarm of bats feeding.
“They were flying all around me,” he says. “I was petrified.”
When he got home, his father explained the bats weren’t going to hurt him.
“They were underdogs and I’ve always liked the underdog,” he says. Plus, he always had a thing for caves.
Before D’Angeli was a man of bats, he was a touring musician with the ’80s metal band Roxx. Tiring of the music industry, he turned to bats as a full-time pursuit. D’Angeli started out in 1992 with six fruit bats from a zoo in Egypt.
“I wanted to live with the bats, I didn’t want to study them,” he says. “I became obsessed. I wanted to learn everything I could.”
Now, he applies a little of the showmanship he used in music to his bat education efforts, like when he gave a series of talks at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and when he welcomes visitors at the wildlife center. The facility is staffed by three employees and volunteers.
“We try to give them a more intimate experience than you would get at most zoos,” D’Angeli says of those who seek a bat encounter.
Each year, he hosts a three-day event called Batstock, which combines music and art with bat presentations and a bat walk.
D’Angeli expects his wildlife center will reopen either the weekend of June 19 or 26.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he says. He anticipates introducing two species to the facility.
“It’s kind of evolved into New Jersey’s official bat cave,” he says. “I can’t imagine I have a lot more competition.”
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