A Day With The Fruit Bats

As I mentioned in the craft shop rescue story, I think some people have an unrealistically tame vision of what animal rescue really is.  I know I did.  We often get inquiries about volunteering for a day or two at Bat World, and while we know these good people mean well, it doesn’t really work.  We wish it did, we’d all love a little break once in a while, make no mistake about that. Still, when someone comes in for such a brief time, that someone ends up being an extra task rather than an extra hand.  You have to be trained, and by the time you know anything, you’re gone.  And that’s assuming that you knew what you were in for and didn’t panic at first contact with bat guano.

This is true even of those with prior experience volunteering at wildlife sanctuaries; with such unusual and unique animals as bats, very little carries over.  Many veterinarians are loathe to even attempt work on bats for that very reason:  it’s specialized knowledge, takes a long time to learn and is completely useless in any other context.  Given that few people are going to be bringing bats in for treatment, they mostly don’t bother, and it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to learn a skill that they’ll likely never use more than once or twice, if at all.

Having said that, here’s what you’d really be in for if you spent a day doing what Amanda, Angela and I do at Bat World Sanctuary:

Fruit bats are where the “newbies” always start, so I’ll start there as well. It’s the larger of the two flight enclosures by far, as fruit bats are themselves far larger than their insect bat cousins. Toy baskets, foliage, and all manner of interesting playthings array the ceiling, secluded roosting areas are all along the walls and especially in the corners, and at least one or two bats are flying about most of the time even during the day.  The roosting areas are mostly segregated by species, albeit by the bats themselves, not us.

They mix freely when awake and playing at night, but they mingle a lot less when it comes to roosting and sleeping.  There’s an area for the Straw-colored fruit bats, one for the Jamaicans, one for the Egyptians, and while there’s an area that many Carollias (think Lil Drac), many others seem to be completely indiscriminate with who they bunk with and can be found in little cliques within the other bats’ roosts.  The floor is thickly padded with 4 inches of high density foam which is permanently covered with soft vinyl.  The front half of the cage is quite dim for the sake of the Egyptians, who dislike bright light, which is unusual for fruit bats.  The back walls are covered with murals depicting forest and jungle scenery. You hear them, you see them and you are totally in their world because of the simulated natural environment.  I can’t emphasize this enough:  it’s their world, not ours.  It is magical.

An Egyptian in flight. You can see how they “cup” their wings to catch more air and maximize the lift of each wing beat. In the background is a Jamaican fruit bat being a Jamaican fruit bat, i.e. eating.

Fabio, a Jamaican fruit bat , is groomed first thing. You may have seen the video of this that we recently posted on Youtube where he is being brushed by my fellow volunteer, Angela. We always take care of Fabio first because he chooses to roost with the shy, skittish Egyptians (Peekaboo excepted, of course).  Even Amanda – who hand-raised no small amount of them from orphaned pups – can’t walk underneath their roost without  raising an absolute chaos of churning air and slapping wings as ten or fifteen immediately take flight with all possible haste.  It’s shocking how disorienting this is; those bats move a huge amount of air with their wings.  Huge. Coupled with the fact that bats aren’t conventionally considered to be “powerful” animals, such a sudden display of exactly that really throws you the first time you find it thundering all around you.  Since they are nocturnal, the morning route is right about their bedtime, which is why we do it first thing: caring for Fabio initially gives them time to settle back down and go to sleep.

That bears mentioning on its own:  we do all our work when these animals naturally sleep, and we have to constantly be aware of this.  Some disturbance is unavoidable, but we try to minimize it.  Get in early, get it done, and let them be.  Until treat time.

Fabio will suddenly decide when grooming is over and that he needs to be back in his roost now (see video), and then it’s washing and refilling the five large water bowls and several dispensers that we fill with organic fruit juice.  Then we collect the approximately 20+ food dishes dispersed throughout the flight enclosure.  Mere empty remnants of a night of foraging amongst the variety of fruit and tasty supplements. Random fact:  if the bananas are still green, there will be nothing left in the dishes.  They love green bananas, and so we do too; it makes the cleanup easier, and besides, this is the resident colony.  They’re here with us because there was nowhere else for them to go to lead a happy life. It’s literally our job to make them happy.

A small Jamaican fruit bat with a comparatively large kebab.

Once the food and water dishes are taken care of, we pull up the newspaper that we tape below the hanging fruit kabobs and then pick up all the toys.  Another random fact:  more than once I’ve found the front toy basket completely empty, with all its toys beneath the back basket, clearly indicating that the bats were taking toys from one basket and attempting to drop them into the other.

They were playing basketball.  Improvisational batty basketball.  Carollias have been known to drop fruit and toys on volunteers for fun, so there is a precedent for it.

Below the fruit and yam spattered newspaper and covering all the floor is a network of sheets.  They’re washed in three separate loads that we do in a specific order so that we can get them back down as quickly as possible.  They’re to protect the padding installed onto the floor of the enclosure, as we obviously can’t simply pull that up and toss it into the washer like we can the sheets. They also give a soft alternative to the bare vinyl covering of the padded floor, such workarounds being commonly necessary, as there’s not exactly a lot of companies out there manufacturing floor padding for bat enclosures.  Out here on the frontier, you have to improvise.

The Blimp

Then there’s the Blimp.  Well, it’s not a zeppelin.  It’s actually a contraption of Amanda’s devising intended for the use of convalescing bats but amusingly used as a makeshift hammock by lazy bats, since we rarely have a bat with a genuine need for the Blimp.  It’s a plastic container with metal ribbing attached to the open top like an upside down ship’s hull.  Soft green netting is draped above this ribbing, and in the container itself is a thick, cushy layer of foam for them to lay on.  It needs to be wiped down thoroughly, and it’s likely here that a new volunteer will first encounter the dreaded bat poop.  I try to think of it as icky plant fertilizer.  And it is that; guano is very highly prized as some of the best fertilizer, having been shown to be comprised of 15-22% non-burning nitrogen.

Again, because bats sleep during the day, there’s somewhat of a rush to do all of this.  We try to be finished by noon at the latest.  That might sound easy, but you have to keep in mind that before you even got in there to start, you helped fill orders when you first arrived. Just this morning, Angela was busy with 13 Adopt-a-Bat orders that took almost two hours, making everything I’ve just described above suddenly turn into a mad rush so the bats can sleep. Orders are great because they help to fund critical items needed for the bats, so it’s all very connected.

They eat this EVERY NIGHT.

Once you’re done with the flight enclosures, it’s time to prepare the fruit.  You’ll be cutting a lot of fruit into little cubes here. A lot.  And while there’s a big chopper/dicer gizmo that will cut the fourteen apples into cubes, but only after you’ve cut them into finger-width slices, and the honeydew too, once you’ve cut half of one into eighths, and even the tropical fruit cocktail, once you’ve thoroughly washed all that syrup off of it, but there’s no machine to help with the EIGHTY BANANAS except for a short, intentionally dulled knife so you can cut them up very quickly while holding them in your hand.  There’s a definite zen to it after a while, but at first it seems like a mighty job, and one to be done every day. In addition to this is a big batch of berries and a variable addition to the giant blue tub into which all this diced fruit goes: figs, mango, romaine lettuce, celery, carrots, pears among many others.  Then, once all this is done, you stash the very heavy tub in the bat fridge – the bat’s fridge is much bigger than the volunteer’s fridge – with your brown-black banana stained hands.  The stains won’t wash off.  They only wear away, although it doesn’t take too long.

The cups. They’ve already gotten into them in this picture, but you can see the threads which which they screw together.

Still, there’s one really great upside to it:  once the honeydew is cut, you gather up a mix and head back into the enclosure to hand out the treats.  There are mobiles with four dangling cups each to fill, and the Carollias will be all over the first before you’re even done filling the second, but there’s also a couple of dispensers that pose a puzzle for the bats to figure out.  One is a series of cups (pictured at right) dangling on a chain that screw into each other, bottom to top.  It boggles my mind that the bats can unscrew these, but they can, and do so nightly.  The other locks shut with a keylike opener. At some point we really need to get footage somehow of the bats working their way into these, if only for my sake.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I really want to.

Lil Drac himself exhibiting typical Carollia treat time behavior (see video).

Then comes the best part: hand-feeding honeydew to the bats that will accept it.  That’s a few dozen of them if you’re Amanda.  If you’re not, it’s five: Poppy, Mr. Impley and his two girlfriends (who all three roost together) and Peekaboo herself. With Poppy, since she’s such an incredibly shy bat, it helps to softly say her name before you peek into her roost so as not to startle her.  One of the best parts of my time at Bat World thus far is Poppy getting more and more used to me, and I look forward to feeding her probably more than anything else. With Peekaboo, it’s simply finding a moment for her to grab the melon from you with the skittish Egyptians getting stirred up at your approach.  She’ll usually wait for her chance, but sometimes she’ll get frustrated with her roostmates and come out to meet you. Mr. Impley and his girlfriends are easy.  Imps is so trusting that I think he would snatch melon out of the jaws of a wolf if he could.  Imps will even try to get your attention when you walk past in the course of your duties by stretching his wing way out.  His girlfriends are more shy and took some winning over in the beginning, but once they’re used to you, they’ll snatch melon from your hand every bit as unceremoniously as Imps will.

Treat time is also the set time for health checks , where we look in on all the roosts to make sure everyone looks bright-eyed and happy.  Along that same line, every now and then one of our elderly (or young) bats will take a fall, and we wear headlamps in the flight cage to ensure that we can easily spot them.  These falls are onto a padded floor, so it doesn’t hurt them, but the same ones that fall often can’t take off from the ground and simply flap along the floor. Most will flop their way below their roost and climb the mesh walls back up to their roost, but some need help.  They’ll resist your attempts to assist them at first – earning the trust of a bat that has very likely been abused, intentionally or otherwise, takes a long, long time – but a gentle voice and a respectful approach will surprise you with its efficacy.

It’s such a simple thing, but it’s where many zoos fall short; Bat World has taken in more than a few bats that have fallen onto the unpadded concrete flooring in zoo enclosures.  Those that don’t make it to us either suffer while well-meaning people who don’t know how to treat injured bats try and fail to nurse them back to health, or they’re simply euthanized because they can no longer fly or have been disfigured by injuries inflicted by the fall.  Just one more reason in a very long list of why bats shouldn’t be in zoos, and one that gets a lot closer to the heart of their well-being than any disruption of their natural sleep patterns. That’s not to downplay the forced diurnal schedule; it takes a heavy toll over time, cutting their natural lifespans severely.

There’s a young Jamaican fruit bat that came to us recently that’s just learning to fly. He falls fairly often, and the other day he fell right in front of me, far from his roost. If he’d been closer, it would have been preferable to let him do it himself, but as it was he likely fell because he, in his youthful exuberance, wore himself out flying. Traveling all that way across the ground would have only further taxed him.  I approached him slowly, telling him it was okay, asking him to please let me help him back up, but he hopped and flapped steadily away from me, farther from his roost. We held a steady distance; he flapped a few times, I took a step, and right about the time I was about to give up, he stopped.  Very, very slowly, I closed the distance and reached out, clasping him from both sides, gently folding his wings and scooping him up. He let me.

Many bats, when frightened, will cover their head with their wings much like a person might when panic overwhelms them, and he started to, but he didn’t, nor did he try to bite or struggle.  He could have; he was just resting in my hands and could have easily gotten away, but he didn’t.  All he did was let me return him to his roost near the ceiling.  I am learning that bats have an uncanny ability to be able to recognize when you are genuinely trying to help them.

On a banana run to our local Wal-Mart the other day, someone in the parking lot asked me what we “do” with the bats we take in. That’s what we do with them, and that’s why we do all this work. It is for Them.

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