Local teen spreads bat conservation in the Carolinas

by Morgan Smith

Michael Brienza installs a bat house at Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown, S.C., last fall. Each house will hold up to 300 bats and must be at least 15 feet high, facing south or southeast. Photo courtesy of Michael Brienza

Michael Brienza is passionate about bats. To him the often poorly portrayed creatures are “adorable and harmless” and very misunderstood.

So when he’s not running cross-country for Charlotte Country Day School or training for triathlons, he enjoys installing bat houses near his family’s beach house in South Carolina, a place where bats frequent water towers, barns and attics looking for places to hibernate.

“I’m always looking for truth and justice in things,” Michael said. “They are usually portrayed as monsters, which is very unfair. I don’t think it’s fair to portray them in a bad way.”

So far Michael, with the help of his parents Robin and John and various park rangers, has installed six bat houses, three at the wildlife refuge Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown, S.C., and three at Huntington Beach State Park, a project he calls “Bat Conservation in the Carolinas.” While the houses don’t sound like much, they come at $60 a pot and will hold up to 300 bats a piece.

Nestled at 15 feet up on trees and wooden posts throughout the state parks, the houses provide the bats a place to congregate out of the way and danger of humans.

“Bat houses prevent the bats from doing any damage, while also keeping them safe and warm,” Michael said. He first learned about bats at the Shiele Museum in Gastonia.

“The leader of the Organization for Bat Conservation gave a really awesome and persuasive speech about bats,” Michael said. “It all just spoke to me.”

First funded by his parents, Michael’s mom Robin Brienza said Michael raised some money for the project by soliciting to neighborhoods who may have trouble with bats, while also passing out educational pamphlets on the animals that Michael created himself.

But most recently, Michael was one of 20 recipients in the United States to receive a $1,000 2012 Wildlife Conservation Youth Engagement Grant through Planet Connect, an online social network where high school students can learn about and find solutions for current environmental issues.

Michael recently received the first $250 of the grant to purchase more bat houses. His next installation is this weekend in Brookgreen Gardens, a wildlife preserve near Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“It does take a lot of parental support,” Robin Brienza said, considering Michael is only 16 years old. “It’s just been a fun project for us all to work on together. John and I are not necessarily get-your-hands-dirty kind of people, so we’ve really stepped out of our comfort zones.”

The next step, she said, will be going back to the homeowner’s associations to try to persuade coastal neighborhoods to install bat houses in their own communities. Michael has pushed for neighborhood bat houses in the past, but many neighborhoods resist because of fear of attracting more bats. Michael said he’ll try once again to take the educational fliers back to the communities to explain why bats are good for the environment and “not scary monsters like most people think they are.” Bats help maintain the insect population, mainly mosquitoes and moths, which is an essential part of nature.

Next on Michael’s radar is a two-week internship at Hobcaw Barony working with forest ecologist and environmental engineers. Michael will help them with their summer education programs and research the rising sea level effects on the coastal ecology and water quality. Half the money from the grant will provide Michael with a stipend for his internship.

As for his love for the environment,  mom thinks Michael was born to be outdoors.

“He’s such an outdoorsy kids, between the swimming, biking and running, he’s an avid surfer, as well,” she said, not to mention an honors student. “I think that has everything to do with it and we are just so proud of him.”

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