Suzanne Haig: There Are No Bats in the Belfry

Say "Bats" and what do people respond? Vampires? Dracula? Eeek?

No doubt about it, bats have a public relations problem. But what Suzanne Haig would like people to know is that bats are vital to our ecosystem: They eat mosquitoes (some pollinate flowers) and are nature's way of ensuring insect control. One bat, Suzanne says, can eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes each night.

Bats, however, are disappearing from the Northeast, prey to a condition called white nose syndrome, and Suzanne wants people to know what the consequences of their loss will be. The result is a program on why bats have disappeared and why people should care that Suzanne has been instrumental in organizing at the Chester Meeting House on Sunday, Aug. 15 (See "When it Comes to White Nose Syndrome, Scientists Are Stepping Up to the Bat" on page 30 in the Living section).

The meeting involves not only the Deep River Land Trust, of which Suzanne is a member, but also some 11 other land trusts and environmental agencies.

"We can't look at this as individual towns. This needs to be regional," Suzanne says.

Suzanne believes that there are challenges to our ecosystem of which all communities should be aware.

"People are stewards of the earth," she says.

She resents the characterization of environmentalists as tree huggers whose protests threaten jobs. Suzanne says that she views such language as an attempt to marginalize people and divide them from each other when what is needed to solve problems is to join together.

The disappearance of bats is an alarm signal that Suzanne likens to the canary in the coal mine that would sicken or die when toxic gasses built up. She points out that there has also been a dramatic decline in the numbers of other living organisms, among them bees, vital for the pollination of plants, and sea turtles, whose falling numbers are thought to be the result of water pollution and warming water temperatures.

Organizing for a cause is nothing new for Suzanne, who grew up in Westchester County and Washington, D.C., but graduated from the University of Chicago. She began her career as an organizer in Chicago working in the women's movement in the 1960s and '70s.

"It was education, education involving women's issues, fighting for issues," she says.

One of those issues was the Equal Rights Amendment, which Suzanne notes would have passed if Illinois had ratified it.

"I loved organizing; I loved building coalitions," she says.

Her involvement in women's issues led to an involvement in politics. In 1974, Suzanne ran for treasurer of the State of Illinois as a socialist. In 1976, she was the socialist candidate for governor. She polled less than one percent of the vote. James Thompson, the Republican candidate, won.

In the late 1970s, Suzanne and her husband Gus Horowitz, whom she met in Chicago, returned to New York. Suzanne wrote for socialist publications, often on issues related to the environment. She travelled to upstate New York to do a series on Love Canal, the polluted area of the City of Niagara Falls where discarded toxic chemicals caused a public health crisis with widespread political ramifications. She also wrote about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and organized demonstrations against nuclear power.

In the mid-1980s, Suzanne embarked on a new career. She went to New York University for a master's degree in computer programming. Since then, she and Gus have run their own software-design company, writing programs for clients that range from public interest groups to the New York City meat wholesalers. The program for the meat industry, Suzanne says, enabled the wholesalers in the recall of products, identifying where meat came from and where it was sold.

Suzanne and Gus, who divide their time between the New York metropolitan area and Deep River, call their company Two Rivers Computing for the two bodies of water that are central to their lives, the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. Suzanne is comfortable both in the city and the country, but sees differences in the way people behave.

"Here, people stand in line," she says, referring to Deep River.

The couple began coming to Deep River in the mid-1980s to a piece of property originally purchased by Gus's father. The Essex Steam Train regularly chugs past their home, tooting loudly as it goes, but Suzanne says she has no problem with the noise.

"I love the steam train," she says.

Still, she admits, when she is talking on the telephone she sometimes has to ask clients to repeat things when there are persistent whistle blasts from the locomotive.

When Gus and Suzanne first came to Deep River, Suzanne says she could see bats flying from the woods behind their home over to the river.

"I love to see the way they dart," she says.

Now things are different.

"Every night I look out and I am excited if I see a bat," she says.

Maybe, Suzanne observes, movies and literature can come to the aid of the public perception of bats. She notes the books and current movies that have turned vampires from ghost-story villains to romantic heroes; she wonders what would happen if Hollywood decided to glamorize bats. For the time being, however, she is putting her faith in education and public awareness.

Bats: Where Have They Gone? Why Should We Care?

Sunday, Aug. 15, 4 to 6 p.m.

Chester Meeting House

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