CLEBURNE -- When Fred and Casey Garza decided to open a restaurant offering Chicago-style hot dogs in a building that is more than 100 years old, they expected a few bumps.
In September, they found a photo album with historic pictures of Cleburne in what used to be a gambling joint on the building's third floor. It went missing, and a ransom note told them to give away 100 hot dogs on Valentine's Day. They did, but the photos are still gone.
Then their mascot, Chico -- a mannequin made by an Iraq War veteran -- that sat outside their restaurant, Garza's Famous Chigo Hotdogs, was beheaded during last winter's ice storm. It now has a pickle bucket where the head used to be.
But now things have become just plain batty after Fire Chief Clint Ishmael discovered bats, perhaps thousands of them, near the three-story building's roofline.
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While the news traveled like a bat out of hell -- bringing them customers from as far away as Galveston who came in hopes of seeing the bats -- they say overall business in the downtown eatery has plunged 75 percent because people think the bats are inside the restaurant.
"I didn't believe the chief when he told me, but when he took me up there to see the bats, I was at a loss for words," Garza said.
Bats in his building
Ishmael discovered the bats on Memorial Day while putting out flags for the Rotary Club throughout downtown when he noticed displaced bricks near the roofline of the building, which was built in 1866, Garza said. Ishmael used a ladder truck to inspect the bricks, and that's when he saw and heard the bats with their high-pitched squeaking.
"I was quite surprised. A lot of these hundred-year-old buildings have a lot of weather damage. When we removed one brick, 60 bats appeared," Ishmael said. The bats are in an 8-foot area from the top of the building to the window line on the third floor, he said.
Ishmael said the city is helping the Garzas by providing information on how to safely remove the Mexican free-tail bats, which are common in Texas. They usually don't make an appearance until well after dark, sometimes as late as midnight, to feed on mosquitoes and other insects.
"It is up to the building's owners to decide how to handle the bats," Ishmael said, as it is not against state law to remove them.
Amanda Lollar, president and founder of Bat World Sanctuary with headquarters in Mineral Wells, said the Garzas' situation isn't unique. Downtown areas often have thousands of bats, it's just that no one sees them.
Bats are gentle animals, weighing only as much as a stick of gum, she said. The bats don't have the strength to move bricks, so the damage was caused by something else, she said.
"The bats are running out of their natural habitat, and they are roosting in our buildings. Age is what caused the bricks to come loose."
Lollar said it's probably best to wait until winter, when most of the bats have migrated to Mexico, before trying to relocate the animals that remain. Bat World provides a one-way valve that allow the bats to fly out of a building, but not back in, Lollar said.
Waiting on the pups
Fred Garza said the bats are giving birth to their pups, so he wants to wait until September when the babies are old enough to fly before sealing the place where the bats have made their nest.
Casey Garza said he's concerned about the environment and wants to do all he can to protect it.
"Maybe that's why the bats like it here. They know we are bat-friendly," he said.
In the meantime, the Garzas are trying to make the best of the situation.
Casey Garza, who said he was a chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas before opening his hot dog joint, decided to get creative, making a "bat dog" to add a little humor.
The bat dog is a chili dog with blue corn tortilla chips for wings and a marshmallow with black eyes made of frosting for the head.