AMERICUS, Ga. – The grand historic mansions of this Southern town have become infested with millions of bats — so many that the sky turns black with each sunset. So many that not even the neighborhood Batman can help.
"This town is in bad shape," said George Perkins, a bat remover who often makes public appearances in the caped crusader's costume and drives his own Batmobile, a retro-styled Chrysler Prowler with bat emblems.
Homeowners are not laughing. The bat problem began about a decade ago and got steadily worse as the number of animals grew. Perkins alone cannot do the job anymore, and now the state has promised to help, proposing a yearlong program to capture and move the flying mammals to "bat houses" where they will no longer be a nuisance.
"They're perpetual crap machines," said Tripp Pomeroy, who spent $1,500 trying to evict bats from the attic of his 96-year-old home in Americus, a town of 17,000 people 116 miles south of Atlanta. Bats are the leading cause of human rabies in the United States, and that makes Pomeroy reluctant to let his children sleep in their upstairs bedrooms.
Many of the bats have settled into the town's historic district, known for its antebellum and Greek Revival mansions built in the 1800s, and Victorian homes from the early 1900s. Many of the homes have white columns, wide porches and other touches that look like something straight out of "Gone with the Wind."
The homes "are like art," said Deanna Burgess, who recently moved into a house built in 1856. "They need to be brought back and preserved for future generations."
Free-tailed bats, as the animals are called, normally dwell in caves in Texas and farther west but have been making their way into the Southeast, particularly over the past three decades. Experts say they are drawn to Americus because it has an unusually large number of old houses, which are not as well sealed-up as new homes and have lots of crevices in their attics that allow bats to slip in.
(Americus is also the site of the world headquarters of Habitat for Humanity, the charity that builds homes for the poor. And Former President Jimmy Carter grew up a few miles away, in Plains.)
The bats swarm out in the evening, helping to curb the insect population by eating mosquitoes and other pests. But as the sun comes up, they return to their dark attic lairs, where they urinate and leave piles of smelly guano.
"In some areas, the odor is unbearable on hot summer days," said Lane Tyson, 26, who fights to keep bats out of his early-1900s home.
Residents are not allowed to kill the bats because they are protected under Georgia law. Killing even one carries up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
So homeowners try to keep them out by plugging openings in their homes. But that is often a futile task, since bats can squeeze through holes as small as a dime.
Those who can afford professional help call Perkins, who founded his company, Bat Busters, in the early 1990s, when a young woman died from rabies after she touched bats that flew into her office. Perkins refers to his offices as "Bat Caves," and callers hear the theme from the "Batman" TV series while on hold.
Perkins uses sealant and wire mesh to close gaps and create one-way doors that let the bats out but not in. He also crawls into the bat roosting areas.
"In one house alone, I estimated 10,000 in the attic," said Perkins, 56. Once, he found a layer of guano 8 inches deep.
From 1990 to 2005, 31 of the 39 reported cases of human rabies were linked to bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because bats have tiny teeth, people may not even realize they have been bitten. Humans also can get rabies from a bat scratch or bat saliva. The disease can be fatal without anti-rabies shots. In humans, that means six shots over 30 days.
Perkins said he has been bitten often and has been a frequent recipient of the rabies vaccine.
After years of frustration, homeowners sought help from state officials. The Department of Natural Resources proposed a plan that includes training city workers to remove bats and erecting bat houses, which resemble bird houses and can hold hundreds of bats.
"We recognize that bats provide a valuable ecological service by consuming vast quantities of night-flying insects, many of which are significant pests to farmers and homeowners," said Mike Harris, the state's top wildlife official. "However, we certainly don't expect people to tolerate bats roosting in their homes and businesses."