So, about those bats…In working on the General Assembly program and remarks, I thought about our mascot, RB the Riverbat, and wondered what he might think about our theme for the year – Light Your Fire: The Power of Purpose and Belonging in Student Success.

Bats: Purpose, Belonging and Fire

As it turns out, purpose, belonging and fire are all parts of a bat’s environment and impact our world in significant ways. Starting with purpose, bats have various roles in our environmental and sustainability effort. According to “Why Bats Matter” from the Bat Conservation Trust:

“Bats play an important role in many environments around the world. Some plants depend partly or wholly on bats to pollinate their flowers or spread their seeds, while other bats also help control pests by eating insects. In the UK, some bats are ‘indicator species’ because changes to these bat populations can indicate changes in aspects of biodiversity.”

As we know from living in Austin and having heard about or experienced the seasonal bat exodus from the Congress Avenue Bridge each year, most bats live in colonies. While not many studies on the sociality of bats have been conducted, newer techniques and technologies now allow us to study bat biology more closely. New research shows that bats have social systems that are not only complex, but show newly identified behaviors of collaboration, connection and caring (yes, the three Cs). A 2008 study on the “Causes and Consequences of Sociality in Bats” highlights that “bat research can contribute to the understanding of animal sociality, and specifically to important topics in behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology, such as dispersal, fission-fusion behavior, group decision making, and cooperation.”

Six bats hanging upside down from a tree with one bat looking directly at the camera.

With Halloween around the corner, it’s important to note that bats are really more benevolent and friendly than vicious blood-suckers as they are portrayed during this holiday. Researcher Geral Carter has studied bats to “untangle the evolutionary functions of friendship.” In the Scientific American article, “Blood Sisters: What Vampire Bats Can Teach Us about Friendship,” Carter found that bats establish social networks through reciprocity of food sharing beyond their kin, which create safety nets for survival, aligning with early anthropological studies where humans used networks of friends for survival. This reminds me of our student success efforts and the critical nature of broad networks of support systems for our students to navigate and reach their academic goals.

So what do bats think about “light your fire?” While the theme of fire for us is metaphorical, for bats it can be literal. It turns out bats may benefit from wildfires as they are better able to forage, fly and find insects to eat, and to find roosting habitats when dense forests are replaced with open spaces created by forest fires. Additional research, led by bat ecologist Winifred Frick of the University of California, Santa Cruz, reveals that “a survey of bat activity in burned and unburned areas after a major wildfire in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains found no evidence of detrimental effects on bats one year after the fire. The findings suggest that bats are resilient to high-severity fire, and some species may even benefit from the effects of fire on the landscape.”

RB, the ACC mascot, sitting in front of the Congress Avenue Bridge in the City of Austin.

So far, RB is LOVING our theme! But what about other creatures in our world and their role in purpose and belonging?

Human Connection to Animals:

Closely linked to last week’s blogon “Purpose and Belonging to Support Mental Health and Wellbeing,” the article “How Animals Provide a Sense of Purpose” demonstrates how animals can support both purpose and belonging in several ways:

  • “By having an obligation to something or someone greater than ourselves, this gives meaning to our lives, especially in times when we wonder what the meaning is. 
  • Researchers have found that by simply petting and talking to their pet dog, owners are actually releasing good neurochemicals
  • People struggling with brain-based disorders – especially the effects of depression, anxiety and loneliness—claim to have a new-found sense of purpose when they adopt a pet into their home.”

There is a special bond between humans and animals, especially their pets. Dogs are closely linked to belonging as most trainers ascertain that “dogs have a pack mentality like their forefather the wolf. When they suddenly become the lone wolf, their sense of belonging is challenged.” If you have ever walked the halls of an animal shelter, you will remember the sad looks on each dog’s face that was isolated.

In “Do Dogs Feel they Belong,” a study is cited on “loved-up looks” between dogs and their owners. An animal behaviorist in Japan studied the emotions of dogs and humans when they look into each other’s eyes and found a significant increase in the oxytocin hormone or “love hormone” in both the pups (130%) and their human companions (300%):

“The history of dogs belonging to a human society goes back to the ancients who endorsed this belief, sharing their lives with canines and even being buried alongside their beloved pups. Even in ancient times, dogs were part of a human dynasty and deemed content in their role as companions. The wolf who goes through life as part of a pack has become the dog who lives comfortably with a different species. The need for all creatures to belong is founded not only on the biology of creation, but a deep-seated feeling that this is their purpose.”

Belen Loza, in “Unsung Heroes: 10 Ways Animals Help Us,” beautifully ties our last two blogs’s themes together–sustainability and mental health–in her opening line stating, “animals play a key role in environmental protection and human wellness.” The purpose of the earth’s creatures is closely blended with ours with examples like bees as pollinators to sustain life, beavers to combat climate change, narwhals (unicorns of the sea) used by NASA “to collect data from the hard-to-reach depths of the Arctic on water salinity, temperature, and impact of the increasingly warm ocean water on Greenland’s glaciers.”

Pathways Alignment

ACC offers several degrees and programs that involve animal-related careers:

Aspiring veterinarians can get their start here with a pre-medical Associate of Science degree before transferring to a four-year university.

Students who are interested in providing nursing care to animals can complete a certificate program for veterinary assistants in the Continuing Education department or an Associate of Applied Science in veterinary technology.

The Veterinary Technology Associate of Applied Science Degree (AAS) is accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA) and is under the direction of Department Chair Dr. Kerry Coombs. They are located on the Elgin campus with a state of the art facility and large animal pastures that allow cattle to graze on campus.

ACC Veterinary Technology student holding a kitten that is looking into the camera.

The Agricultural Sciences program, under the direction of Department Chair Savannah Rugg,allows students to learn about sustainable agriculture, soil and water conservation, soil science, product marketing, horticulture, animal science, and small farming. ACC has a 17-acre Sustainable Student Farm located at ACC Elgin Campus consisting of 1-acre in organic vegetable production, 1-acre fruit tree orchard, and 15-acres in rotational grazing pasture for sheep production.

ACC’s Biology program, under the direction of Department Chair Rick Fofi, provides foundational courses and offers an Associate of Science Degree (AS) in Biology. The Best Accredited Colleges website shows a degree in biology can be applied to several different animal-related careers that often involve hands-on interactions.

Job Title Median Salary (2020)* Job Growth (2019-2029)*
Animal Trainers $31,520 13%
Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists $66,350 4%
Veterinarians $99,250 16%
Animal Scientists $63,490 6%
Microbiologists $84,400 3%
Veterinary Technicians $45,620 15%

Biology Professor Curtis Eckerman is leading a research initiative with his ACC colleagues–Felix Villarreal, Kissaou Tchedre, Amy Leksana, John Norris, Linnea Fletcher, Evelyn Apple and Keith Crippen–who are currently looking at biodiversity of moths from a molecular and morphological perspective. They hope to add this project as an undergraduate research component to their major’s biology courses.Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

ACC and Local Animal-Related Activities

  • Our ACC Library brings therapy dogs to campus during exam time. In partnership with the Austin Dog Alliance, the ACC Library teams have collaborated to bring therapy dogs to San Gabriel, Highland and Riverside campus libraries–in exchange for belly rubs, of course. Quintana Roo, a chocolate brown, floppy-eared therapy dog, and his partner Heather Herrick, a dog handler and member of the Board of the Directors for The Dog Alliance, shared the value of therapy pets in one’s life.

The Dog Alliance is a donation-supported, nonprofit organization that began in 2006 in Cedar Park, Texas. Since then, the organization has grown to have over 100 therapy teams in addition to a wide range of programs tailored to a variety of services from veteran’s assistance, visiting hospitals and even providing an outlet to reduce stress in places of education and/or work.

Pets became our close “coworkers” during the pandemic, and ACC faculty and staff have often been proud to show off their fur babies in meetings and via social media. Watch Video

  • Austin Zoo is a non-profit rescue zoo located in southwest Travis County and accredited by the Zoological Association of America.The mission of Austin Zoo is to assist animals in need through rescue, conservation and education. Austin Zoo currently has over 300 rescued animals from over 100 different species, including African lions, Bengal tigers, cougars, three species of monkeys, black bears, ring-tailed lemurs and porcupines.The Zoological Association of America, in addition to a mission and objectives, has a purpose statement that includes promoting legal and ethical methods for sustaining managed wildlife.
  • On three occasions, my daughters and I have found injured wild birds and taken them to the Austin Wildlife Rescue. AWR rehabilitates and releases orphaned, injured and sick wild animals and educates the public to coexist with wildlife. In 2020, they took in close to 9,500 sick and injured wild animals while also expanding services. Hayley Hudnall, Executive Director, has a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Biology from Texas A&M University, a master’s degree in Wildlife Ecology from Texas State University, and shares her purpose in a day in wildlife rescue.
  • According to a 2019 Spectrum News article, Austin is maintaining its status as the largest No-Kill city for shelter animals nationwide after a unanimous City Council vote in March raised the percentage of animals that must be kept alive from 90 to 95%. This came just nine years after the original City of Austin’s No-Kill implementation plan was approved by Council. Since 2010, the Austin Animal Center has saved more than 90% of the approximately 20,000 animals entering the shelter each year.
  • Austin is ranked 6th in the nation for ‘Pet Health and Wellness’ according to WalletHub’s 2020 Most Pet-Friendly Cities, and according to the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, Austin has the highest number of veterinarians per capita in Texas? There are pet-related events nearly every weekend here: parades, parties, contests and competitions, adoption events and even a “pup crawl.” We have a cat cafe and Yelp lists 576 dog friendly restaurants in our city.

Animal Welfare

In 2012, Austin Community College, in partnership with ACC Student Life and the Autism Project, hosted famed autism awareness and animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin inA Special Afternoon with Dr. Temple Grandin. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, is renowned both for her contributions to autism awareness and to the animal science field. She is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, authored several books including Animals Make Us Human, appeared on numerous high-profile talk shows, and in 2010 was named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine.

Temple Grandin in front of a podium during her presentation at ACC in 2012.

Learning to Give’s vision is a world where all youth are knowledgeable and equipped for lifelong engagement in philanthropy as givers of time, talent and treasure for the common good. They provide materials and support for educators, youth leaders and families to help youth develop generosity and agency for their ongoing roles in the community. Their inclusion of Temple Grandin as a resource for schools highlights her ties to the philanthropic community:

“Temple Grandin is an important figure in the field of animal welfare. Her work in designing safe, humane animal handling systems for meat processors has eliminated a great deal of inhumane treatment of animals from the meat processing industry. Praise for her work in that field is almost universal. Her other contribution has been to provide some philosophical support for the idea that animals have rights. Her argument that animals are not things because they can feel pain and fear makes an important moral distinction that demands that humans respect the right of animals to be free of fear and pain inflicted by humans.

Grandin’s work has helped to provide the philosophical underpinnings for the advocacy of Animal Rights by groups such as Animal Rights International (, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ( Her work on the design of humane animal handling facilities is very useful to advocates of humane animal handling, such as Compassion in World Farming (”

In my research this week, I also came across a book titled, The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, by Vint Virga D.V.M. Based on Dr. Virga’s 25 years of experience as a veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist, this book explores animals and the relationships that we develop with them. Born from a personal, life-altering experience where the human connection with a struggling, injured dog affected the canine’s recovery, this book shares hispurpose and quest to enhance the quality of life for all living creatures. Dr. Virga believes that there is a profound harmony between animals and humans:

“WithThe Soul of All Living Creatures, Virga draws from his decades in veterinary practice to reveal how, by striving to perceive the world as animals do, we can enrich our own appreciation of life, enhance our character, nurture our relationships, improve our communication with others, reorder our values, and deepen our grasp of spirituality.”

I leave you with the reflection that animals provide a direct link to our theme on purpose and belonging. They enrich our lives in many ways, and it is our responsibility to enrich theirs, too. Belonging means we are all in this together, and whether we are focused on sustainability, mental health, environmental wellness or simply connecting with other living things, our purpose grows deeper in the light of wellbeing for our animal friends.

In shared purpose and belonging,

Susan Thomason, AVC TLED

In collaboration with 

Courtney Grams, Director of Faculty Communications
Dr. Rachel Barrera, Content Architect, Faculty Communications
Terry Barksdale, Professor / Reference Librarian
Dr. LaKisha Barrett, Professor of Biology
Dr. Kerry Coombs, Department Chair, Veterinary Technology
Felix Villarreal, Professor of Biology, Biology Assistant Chair of Student Advising/Counseling
Savannah Rugg, Department Chair, Sustainable Agriculture
Elizabeth Warren, CE Program Coordinator
Rachel Barchus, Editor

Are you harnessing the power of purpose and belonging in your work at ACC?

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