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Restless

By Mitch Gilly

We just released four male free-tailed bats who were overwintering with us at Bat World Sanctuary. They had been found trapped in buildings and grounded just as winter set in, so for their own good they spent the winter with us until the weather warmed enough to allow them a safe release.

As typical at this time of year, we’d noticed a pattern of excitement in these boys over the past few weeks, progressing from fidgeting during feeding time to a growing curiosity and restlessness about what lie beyond the clinic walls.

For male bats, the return migration for free-tailed bats begins as early as late January (depending on the weather). In their never-ending quest for love, male bats begin to trickle back into Texas, often the height of winter, to get in before everyone else and scout out ideal spots for bachelor pads. They set up house, settle in, and as I like to imagine, practice their love songs assiduously until the females arrive around March.

A male free-tailed bat hoping to attract females by rubbing secretions from his gular gland on an enclosure wall close to his roosting spot.

This seasonal rite is so hardwired into the bats that despite having been indoors for months, they nevertheless know that it’s time to “get out there”. Like clockwork, the boys begin their harmless squabbling and frantically rubbing their chests and faces on the entries to their selected roosting spots in the hopes that the ladies will like their aftershave. It’s all natural, of course. Very fancy stuff.  Between this and their constant impeccable grooming, I’ve come to understand that in their way, the bats dress far, far better than I do.

It’s a humbling thing to realize.

This incredible innate precision isn’t limited to time keeping, however. They’ve been shown to be able to navigate over large distances even when the moon isn’t visible, using only a glimpse of the position of the sun at sunset. Here in Texas, they are often even spotted on Doppler radar in massive swarms, uncannily spherical or crescent shaped in form. These are most often the bats of Bracken cave, which number at a staggering 20 million bats and is thought to be the largest conclave of mammals on Earth. Much of this likely isn’t new information to those who read this blog and follow our efforts to educate on online; it wasn’t anything we staff didn’t already know either. There is, however, a massive difference between having an abstract understanding of the capacities of bats’ sensoriums versus seeing it in action, and in situations where its efficacy seems almost preternatural.

It’s not, of course. It’s as natural as natural gets.  Bats merely make us rethink what natural or normal is.  They are incredibly long-lived for small mammals, and their roles in their respective ecosystems are far more foundational than is common for Class Mammalia. They are the only creatures other than birds and insects that are capable of true flight, and their dispositions are completely at odds with their unjustly sinister reputation.

They embody a conundrum that many of the brightest minds humanity has produced have pondered since the mind was first able to ponder. Perhaps we can sense this about them; perhaps this is why they have so persistently captured our collective imagination and become icons and archetypes both innate to and beyond what they really are.

One thing is for sure: the benefits of bats run the entire gamut, from maintaining the foundation of their ecosystems to the inspiring of philosophical contemplation. All animals should be valued, but it has to be said that few are so richly beneficial to all aspects of our existence in this world.

Their Own Best Advocate

By Mitch Gilley

Judging from the enthusiastic response on our Facebook page and the activity in our chat room, most of you will already be aware of the four bat cams streaming live 24/7 in the flight enclosures.

This was a big step for us.  It’s been one of Bat World’s missions to show that bats are undeserving of the sinister reputation that has plagued them for centuries and there’s no better way to dispel the myths than to show them and how they react naturally and interact with their caregivers.  Many, many people have seen movies depicting bats as vicious, evil beings so it gives us immense pleasure to show them in a new light, their natural light, illuminated by authenticity rather than unimaginative fiction.

There’s never been a good way to let people actually see how inquisitive and playful they are. Their antics are the subject of a lot of discussion around the office here at Bat World, and we are the ones who are fortunate enough to see it everyday. Now any supporter can watch a video stream in the evenings and see fruit and insect bats live and play in a surrounding that is as close to their native environment as is possible; short of setting up cameras in a rain forest that is.

The Dropcam software even allows you to go back through the previous night’s footage the next morning and identify moments of high activity so that particularly interesting events can be quickly isolated.  It also enables us to convert these moments into educational, heartwarming and even comical videos.

That is the best thing about these cameras: capturing those little moments and learning small details that would otherwise go undocumented, even with nocturnal observation in the wild because all predation and the struggle to survive at the hands of man has been removed. They are safe and able to play as nature intended before the cruelty of humans entered their world.  The cameras are small, surrounded by foliage and very unobtrusive, whereas a human observer would cause many of the bats to simply pay attention to them rather than be themselves, no matter how familiar that individual might be to the bats.

Being inquisitive and playful much of the first night’s footage was of curious bat snouts probing the camera, or the lens being covered by wings as they outright landed on it for a thorough examination. Still, in the end, the cameras have become just another fixture in their playground and they are free to be themselves. It was such a heartfelt moment to know that we could bring our supporters the joy the bats experience from the new toys that are frequently sent by donors.

To our knowledge, this sort of free interaction among a sizable colony of bats can’t be seen anywhere else. In the streams you can watch both fruit and insect bats play, groom, solve enrichment puzzles, and mingle freely not only with those different from themselves, but those of entirely different species. We invite those who are interested in them to indulge, those who are put off by their undeserved reputation to disabuse themselves of erroneous preconception, and everyone to burn through far too much free time than intended watching this unprecedented window into their lives.

It all suggests that perhaps nobody is better at advocating for bats than the bats themselves.

 

Settling in, Bat Style

By Mitch Gilley

Most of you are aware of our big move to our new facility last August. By far most of the work was with the new enclosures, which I am extremely proud to have helped built. Not only are they much larger, but very carefully designed and build with relentless perfectionism.

But given the picky disposition that most bats share, we could not help but wonder if they would approve of the all the work that we put into their new home. It was really gratifying to see them immediately recognize the similarities between their new enclosures and the old ones, the familiar scents of their old toys and roosts were meticulously woven into the new which gave them the confidence to explore its differences. Even Poppy wandered across the ceiling in the full light of day, (thanks to the large skylight),  to check out her new home despite ample secluded places to hide and wait for it to get dark.  She reminded me of the great explorers who conquered the new West and we took delight in watching her inspect every aspect of the new home she and her brethren would share.

The bats took a few days in hammering out their chosen roosting but by the end of the first week it almost seemed as though they’d always lived at the new place as it was theirs to command, enjoy and embrace and somehow instinctively they knew it. We, their caretakers, learned right alongside the bats and realized more ways to make life easier than ever for our elderly and arthritic bats, such as the day we discovered one of them munching on a chunk of sweet potato that had fallen off of one of the a kabobs that hangs from the flight enclosure ceiling. It had hit the floor and rolled under the roosting area and ended up against a wall. An elderly Jamaican fruit bat that likes to roost against the mesh that lines that wall (one of several rescued from research in 1996),  happened to noticed the sweet potato. He crawled down to the floor and began to happily munch away in secrecy and comfort, knowing the sweet potato was all his and that none of the younger bats would come down and steal it away from his aging grip. Now we make sure each night that ample pieces of sweet potato are placed in various spots on the clean floor and against the wall for the oldsters.

An elderly Jamaican fruit bat enjoys a messy treat of sweet potato in a secret hiding place all his own.

There are a million other things that the bats and we caretakers have learned from each other since the big move, so the extent of it all is far beyond one blog post. What’s most important, though, is the trust that the bats have shown in us in taking them to their new home. Even shy Isis, who hasn’t been with us long compared to most of our other residents, now comes out for treat time and waits expectantly for her piece of honeydew. She, along with the African fruit bats and many, many others, were among those that volunteers and staff didn’t see very often during the day, and while we hoped that they would accept their new home, we did not expect that they would seem to understand so well that we did this for them.

No matter how hard the work was, I know I speak for everyone when I say that we’d do it all over again just to witness the bats enjoying the semi-outdoor enclosure for the first time as they soared in the night air, zipping back and forth with the abandonment that only freedom brings.  That’s a story for the next blog, though.

Lastly, to all who gave us so much support in getting this huge undertaking done, whether it was by donations or by rolling up their sleeves to help –  thank you. We realize that we have thanked you many times already, but to us it will never be enough.

Meet Our Staff

Terri giving Poppy at treat at Bat World SanctuaryTerri Smith, Assistant Director
Terri  has a background in medical transcription and also worked for years with in educational systems developing life skills programs for special needs children. Terri is an animal rights activist with a special place in her heart for the under-dog. She had never been around bats before coming to Bat World Sanctuary and had always believed what a lot of people believe – that bats are scary. Within two minutes of being with them she quickly realized that she had spent a lot of years with the wrong ideas. Terri states “My day is no longer complete unless I have had my daily time with them.” Terri’s favorite part of the day is feeding them their treats. Least favorite part of the day –  getting yelled at by the bats for being late with their treats! Terri’s patience, cheerful, go-getter attitude, her flexibility, and all around smarts make Terri a valued asset to Bat World Sanctuary.

Desi-filling troughs-staff pageDesi Chips, Assistant Keeper
Before working for Bat World Sanctuary Desi spent time in customer service as well as running a home based business. Much of her free time is spent volunteering for various animal rescue organizations. Desi’s roots are in Mineral Wells, Texas where she was born and raised and where she resides with her husband and their two-year old daughter. Desi became interested in bats at the age of 10 when she found a small bat at the beach that had unfortunately drowned. Her heart went out to the tiny, beautiful creature and she wanted to know more, so she began to read books on bats at every opportunity. Desi now looks forward to a long-term career with Bat World Sanctuary, where her passion, her loyalty, her motivated nature and her dedication to the animals she serves makes her a welcome addition to our organization. 

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Mildred

Before Mildred came to us she’d accomplished quite a lot on her own. While she called the decades-old bat colony in the heart of downtown Mineral Wells, TX home, each winter this tiny, inch-long bat would fly out one night with the rest of her colony and head for Central America to escape the cold. Each spring she would return to reform their community, raise her pup and keep people who didn’t even know she existed free of insect pests and free to enjoy the night in peace, as she did. As the years took their toll, the migrations felt longer, gravity felt stronger and the heavy demands of motherhood grew heavier. Sometime over the years Mildred lost the tip of her tail, but for approximately eighteen years she persevered, until one day the rigors of it all became too much for her and she found herself grounded.

One thing saved her: she finally succumbed in her Texas home, and that home is a wild sanctuary under the care of Bat World. A volunteer found her starving and dehydrated, still pressing onward as best she could to crawl toward some kind of safety. She was rescued and she quickly recovered to the point where she would ordinarily be returned to the wild.

Mildred, safe and sound for the rest of her life

There were two problems, however.  It was immediately clear that she loved being at Bat World Sanctuary. She took to her caretakers very quickly, and learned to feed herself from the meal worm dishes which is very unusual for a bat of her age. After just a few days it was clear that she liked them very much as she grew rounder and rounder.

It was also clear that the old age that grounded her would only do so again if she were to be released. Time had worn her teeth down so that she’d have had trouble grabbing insects from the air and holding onto them. It had likely made feeding difficult for her for some time and was almost certainly the problem that had caused her to almost starve.  Having worked so hard for so long she deserved an easy retirement, and so she was given one. Mildred will live out her life at Bat World with many other old friends rescued from that same colony, where flying is simply for the joy of it, and plentiful food will never be out of her reach.

The Fridge Incident

By Mitch Gilley

Bat World’s current refrigerator

It’s funny what you end up daydreaming about when you have to prepare a giant bin of fruit every day, the fruit bat’s nightly ration.  For us, a huge refrigerator is close to the top of the list.  We use a large variety of fruit, including but not limited to organic apples, bananas, sweet potatoes, pears, honeydew melon, blueberries, papaya, kiwi, etc.  All these things ripen, and thus spoil, at different rates at room temperature.  We refrigerate what we can, but we currently have nowhere near enough space for everything.

Once in the new facility, however, this will no longer be a problem.  One of our biggest supporters purchased the fridge of a fruit salad chef’s dreams, one of such size that we don’t even have the space to use it here in our current facility.  It’s being safely stored at the moment, but it wasn’t stored easily.

On the morning of the day it arrived, February 14th (Valentine’s Day), we’d gotten word a couple days before that the fridge had been purchased for us, which was really great news.  We then speculated on when the delivery might occur but assumed since it was coming by freight it would be at least 2 to 3 weeks.  The thing weighed a monstrous 450 pounds and was possibly too large to simply bring in through our shipping hall door, so we needed to take some measurements and find a place to store it until we moved. Thankfully, we had plenty of time.

A fruit bat chef’s dream

Then, only two days later, a semi truck pulled up in front of Bat World’s facility. It couldn’t be the refrigerator, we said.  The donor had just bought it.  No way it comes in that fast.  And besides, freight trucks sometimes get overloaded and can’t make it to all their stops in a given day; there was a fair chance that this shipment, which couldn’t have possibly been the fridge, wouldn’t even arrive today. The truck must be delivering groceries to the bistro across the street from us. So, reassured, we went about our business.

Then we saw the driver headed to our door, and the afternoon rapidly went downhill from there. He handed me the freight bill which listed an unspecified item (they often do; it’ll say “appliance” or the like rather than be more specific) with a weight of 450 pounds.  Sure enough, when he opened the door to his trailer, there it was, looming monolithically over us.  It only took a second to see that not only was it going to be too heavy for Amanda and I to move ourselves, but it was also very possibly too big for the shipping hall entrance.

While the driver began unloading it, we went to work doing whatever we could to widen the entrance.  There was a light fixture taking up a few inches in the shipping hall that I hastily removed. From there we switched to clearing out the hall as much as possible and discovering that even if we could get the fridge inside, the doors would be unable to close.

The worst part, for me, was that prior to coming to Bat World, I’d spent eleven years working in a warehouse, where part of my responsibilities had been to handle the unloading of the larger, heavier and more awkward shipments that came in:  huge bundles of steel, tower sections, and anything else that would make insurance companies tremble to see balanced in the air on a forklift.  There, I could have literally unloaded this thing in about thirty seconds.  It stung more than a little to be so stymied by a refrigerator.

It wasn’t just us; the driver didn’t have an easy time of it either.  To get the fridge over the curb and on the sidewalk in front of Bat World’s facility, he had to drag it with his pallet jack all the way to the end of the block and up the incline at the crosswalk, then walk it down the sidewalk back to our entrance.  And that, per his company’s insurance regulations, was all he could do for us.  It was up to us to get it the rest of the way.

So there it sat, so close, yet so far.  The thing was even mounted on wheels, but it also sat on a skid, and thus the wheels weren’t actually touching the ground.  It was all very frustrating until Amanda seized upon an idea: our contractor who is overseeing the work on the new facility must know somebody who could help us!  They’d surely have access to the right equipment as well!  One apprehensive phone call later – as we had absolutely no Plan B if they couldn’t or were unwilling to help – and a crew was en route.  Good guy, our contractor.

I left at this point to go home, as the bats were set for the day and there was nothing else I could contribute.  In doing so, I missed the fun that came later, such as the crew that didn’t speak English, or the mailbox being removed from the glass door to see if that allowed room, and when it didn’t, both glass entry doors were removed from their hinges. Amanda stood by holding and handing out any tools they might need and hanging onto screws that had to be removed from the doors,  trying her best to help in small ways despite the language barrier. There was also the removal of the fridge from its skid by sheer muscle power, which makes the ex-warehouse worker in me both cringe and nod approvingly at the same time.  Even with a proper crew rather than two mere bat rescuers, that couldn’t have been easy.

The dream fridge safely tucked away

For their efforts, which resulted in the fridge safely squeezed inside and the glass doors and mailbox all back in place, Amanda gave them the closest thing on hand in an attempt to show gratitude: a few pieces of individually wrapped Valentine’s Day candy.  It was her sincere hope that they didn’t misinterpret her small gift.

In the end, the fridge ended up safely stored in the far end of the shipping hall where it sits now, completely blocking one of our shelves, a reminder of the surplus of space we’ll soon have at the new facility and the uncommon generosity of our supporters.  It will make feeding Peekaboo and her cohorts easier in a million different ways.  Our stocks will be all in one place, we won’t have to track ripeness or spoilage for each different kind of fruit as it’ll all be preserved and all of it can be procured at once, maybe as far as two weeks in advance.  It’s hard to believe, but then, as we well know, that is one huge refrigerator.

Still, every time I’m in the shipping hall now and see it, only one thought comes to mind: Someday, and soon, we’ll have to move it again.  Science has about a month to perfect teleportation before be move, and I for one am holding out hope.

Do it for the bats, science.  Please.

Poppy’s Happy Life

By Mitch Gilley

I’m loathe to admit that I have favorite bats among those we care for, but I am particularly drawn to a few of them. There’s Ichabod, for starters, the formerly injured and now chubby free tail who is responsible for me being at Bat World to begin with. It goes without saying that he would mean quite a lot to me.

With the fruit bats, though, it’s always been Poppy. You might have expected me to say Peekaboo, but that’s backwards; Peekaboo has favorite humans. This arrangement cannot be reversed.

It’s just that the tragedy of Poppy’s history is palpable. She spent most of her life at a zoo in Canada where she was forced to keep a diurnal sleep schedule and endure exhibitions for the crowds of visitors. That she was profoundly unhappy there is evidenced by the warnings we received when she was sent to us. Look out, Poppy likes to bite.

From day one, Poppy has never tried to bite any of us for any reason whatsoever. She has ample chances at treat time, but not only does she never bite, she’s actually very careful in taking the treat from our fingers.

Poppy, sharing a roosting hammock with straw-colored fruit bats. A tiny Carollia bat can be seen to the right.

Still, Poppy remained very, very shy. With her past, who could blame her? As one of the largest bat species on earth, she towered over the African fruit bats. She’d no longer be mistreated, but I feared she’d always be lonely, and that there was nothing we could ever do to truly fix it for her. Every time I brought her the traditional bit of papaya at treat time, I’d see sadness and trepidation in her eyes, and it broke my heart every single time. Yes, she was safe, and yes, she’d never be abused, but after what she suffered, I wanted her to be happy. She deserved to be happy.

It wasn’t just her eyes, nor a flight of imagination extrapolated from what I knew of her background. When we’d bring her that chunk of papaya, she’d hide her face from us. My coworker Angela and I quickly figured out that she was extremely easily startled, and that if we approached her slowly and called out her name in a soft tone of voice before peeking into her roost, she was a little less nervous. It was a little thing, but it was something we could do to make her more comfortable, and we did it religiously thereafter, and still do.

It went like this for weeks after I arrived, until one day I went to her roost with her papaya only to find that she wasn’t there. Panic ensued, and Angela and I swept through the enclosure with as much haste as was possible without frightening the other bats until she spotted Poppy in a very peculiar place: the roosting area of the Egyptian fruit bats. She had settled into the back and blended into the dimness very well with her dark fur even as she dwarfed all the dozens of bats around her. It was only her big orange eyes that allowed Angela to find her, and it only occurs to me now as I write this that it was because she made eye contact with Angela. That was something that Poppy rarely did with us, if ever.

The next day, she had returned to her usual solitary roost, but every two or three weeks there would be a day where we’d find her with the Egyptians again. We all wondered what Poppy’s reasons for spending the day with them were, and while I was tempted to observe her as much as I could, both her and the Egyptians are easily disturbed, and it goes without saying that their comfort did and will always take precedence over my curiosity.

Weeks passed, as they do, until recently we found her with the Egyptians two days in a row, which she’d never done before. Even more interestingly, that second day found her behaving very differently: she no longer hid her face from us. She took her papaya without hesitation. She looked me squarely in the eye, and I could swear that I didn’t see any of the sadness I always saw before. At the time I shrugged it off; I wasn’t entirely sure that those sad eyes weren’t a figment of my sometimes overly romantic imagination, although in retrospect it made perfect sense. Bats are highly social creatures, and over the years Amanda has seen enough anecdotal evidence to come to believe that loneliness can actually severely impact their health, and is actually fatal in extreme cases. It makes perfect sense that Poppy would find her boldness with the Egyptians, even though they aren’t her species. Bats don’t concern themselves too much with such arbitrary divisions. To them, bats are bats.

Poppy and her Egyptian BFFs

As of today, Poppy has never returned to her old roost, and is a totally different bat. Today she waits expectantly for her treat and takes it eagerly. She doesn’t shy away, and will even let me pet her without showing any nervousness or uncertainty. Best of all, though, she seems happy.

We’ll never know exactly what caused the change: it could have been safety in numbers, perhaps Peekaboo’s brazenness rubbed off on her, maybe we were just a few pieces of papaya away from gaining her full trust all along, but somehow overnight she found a boldness that I never expected to see in her.

What I do know, now, is that it happened so organically despite its suddenness that it was only in the last couple of days as I was telling the story to someone that I realized how significant this is. We’ve had many bats that were tragically orphaned, many others that endured ill treatment at the hands of people who didn’t know or didn’t care how to properly tend them, but Poppy had endured years of mistreatment. She was forced to perform and subjected to crowds and noise when her circadian rhythm dictated that she should have been sleeping, and finally subjected to what must have been a terrifying international journey, finding herself with us at the end of it. Many bats who suffer much less never forget it, and at best will only tolerate our presence, and then only if we don’t come too close. It pains us, of course, that we can’t convey to them that they are safe, finally, but ultimately we respect their wishes and keep our distance as best we can as we tend to the colony.

Poppy, however, with the help of her new and comparatively diminutive best friends, has overcome her past. The difference in her is truly amazing. They could have told me we’d taken in a new flying fox as an April Fool’s joke, one that looks exactly like Poppy, that took up the exact same spot in the Egyptians’ roosting area, that also insists on papaya at treat time, and I’d have believed it.

Words can’t possibly convey to you how utterly great it is to see Poppy out of the shell she hid in for so long, but many of you have cared enough to sponsor her through the Adopt-a-Bat program, and we felt we owed it to you to try.

The vast bulk of the credit goes to Poppy herself, and the accepting nature of bats in general. They don’t see her huge size or her orange eyes or her fox-like face; all they see is another bat. That makes it their success story more than ours, and it couldn’t be a more beautiful one.

Poppy accepting a treat of honeydew melon

A Day With The Insect Bats

Caring for microbats can be very, very different than caring for megabats. The latter can be small, but the former are tiny.  Further along that line, for the most part most of these are crevice dwelling bats as opposed to the foliage that fruit bats favor. Crevice dwelling bats know no claustrophobia.  In fact, they redefine agoraphobia.  When you consider this alongside their diminutive stature, you can see that things might get a little tricky.

The insect bats flight enclosure with the “cave” at one end.

As soon as you enter the insect bat enclosure, this is apparent.  It might seem as though the native guys – as nearly all of our insect bats are native to this area – are the unfavored stepchildren of Bat World.  This, however, isn’t true.  No toys hang from the ceiling, but its only because the insect bats would have to come out into the open for extended periods of time to play with them, and it’s just not in their nature to do that. The enclosures also smaller, but so are the bats, as well as the number of them that can actually utilize the flight space. Insect bats really only come to us as rescues in distress of one sort or another, and while nearly all of them are subsequently released after we tend to them, the only ones who stay are those too badly injured or otherwise weakened to return to the wild. As a result, the vast majority of our residents can’t fly at the level of a wild bat, and a great many of those can’t fly at all, so their enclosure is set up so that these bats can traverse its entirety without flapping one wing. More than one only have the one wing to flap as it is, so this is important.

Because of this accessibility, one thing is paramount: safety.  The absolute very first thing you must know is that these bats can be anywhere.  We’re dealing with highly intelligent animals that can squeeze – with a little difficulty, but they can –  through a half- inch wide gap. Not only that, but given their predilection for very enclosed spaces, they enjoy doing so. Tight space is their natural defense. Think of it like a spy choosing a seat at a restaurant so that his back is to the wall and he can see all the exits.  Even after he retires, he still chooses the seat at the back because its the only way he feels safe and comfortable.  Similarly, a crevice dwelling bat in an open space is invariably a nervous bat and will without fail seek any cover it can find as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

So, the routine: the first thing to do is to start the mealworm sorting process.  It’s important, as we hold the same standards for bat food as we do for our own.  We order tens of thousands of mealworms at a time, which come packed in grain from a local supplier. Mealworms are the larva of flour beetles. Invariably, a minority of the worms will die off.  All will shed their skin as they plump up, and some will even begin to pupate.

The bats don’t like to eat the pupae.  Would you? Thus, all this has to be winnowed from the good stuff.  But you’re in luck:  with a minute of preparation, the mealworms will do it for you. Just sift enough worms from the grain, then place them into the far end of a large bin. Place the smaller bin in the other end of the larger one, then put a big bright fluorescent light over the whole set-up.  Mealworms hate light; the smaller bin provides shade.  They’ll flock to that shade, leaving the detritus behind. Easy. 

Had you worked for a certain institute’s ill-fated assurance colony attempt (their name starts with Smiths- and ends in -onian), you’d have instead spent hours-long shifts plucking viable mealworms out, one-by-one-by -one, with tweezers even though you were trained by Bat World not to do this.  You’d also have been wearing a hazmat suit to work with the bats, which is a little like wearing ballistic body armor to a game of golf.

Bats being hand-fed in their “cave.” The “Luxury Suite” sits to the left of the caretaker and the bathut is on the right.

Once the worms are busily turning the concept of survival of the fittest on its head, it’s time to head into the enclosure.  Your work primarily concerns the cave, a cabinet designed especially for the bats as well as the caretaker who hand-feeds them.

The basics, as with all bats and all animals in general, are the same.  The water and food dishes are much smaller, but need cleaning and refilling as always.  The enclosure needs cleaning, although it’s a much easier job than picking/sweeping/mopping after the manically messy fruit bats.  Care needs to be taken to disturb the bats as little as possible while all this is done.

All these differences in the insect bats temperament and nature that I’ve pointed out ultimately culminate in the biggest difference between the fruit bat and insect bat routines:  the gathering and hand-feeding of those who can’t self-feed.  It can seem odd that they simply don’t know how to eat mealworms from a dish, but insect bats eat on the wing, snatching bugs out of the air with the help of echolocation so precise that radar systems around the world tremble with envy.  Going from that to a food dish is as easy for them as it is for you to learn how to eat your food only when someone throws it through the air at you.  When we get a young bat, there’s a very good chance that they can learn with a little time, but when an older bat comes to us, its more difficult.  Some older bats have worn teeth and must be hand-fed soft food for the remainder of their lives, so training isn’t even attempted.

The gathering of the bats coincides with a health check which is performed on every single bat once a day. The bats who need to be hand-fed are marked for easy identification via a green earlobe. The green color is a harmless non-toxic and non-permanent tattoo paste that’s simply smudged onto the ear.  Its humane and completely safe, but does need refreshing now and then.  All the bats inside the fabric roosting pouches are checked as well as the roosts along the wall of the enclosure, changing roosts out for fresh ones as needed. While performing the daily check, any bats that are to be hand-fed are gathered and placed into a small netted enclosure called a bathut. After the bats are fed they are placed the “Luxury Suite.”  The Luxury Suite is a larger, decked-out bathut that includes enrichment. The hand-fed bats will spend the day sleeping inside the luxury suite before being hand-fed again in the evening. After the evening hand-feeding, the bats are placed back into their normal roosting areas inside their cave. Often times if we are running late in the morning, some of the hand-fed bats actually load the selves into the bathut in anticipation of being fed.

As for the actual handling of a microbat, one simply lightly places their hand over the bat, gently contains the bats wings to protect its fingers from injury, grasps it just as gently and manipulates its thumbs and toes as needed to unpluck it from its roost.  It requires a light touch and a knowledge of the way a bats claws curve, and is one of the many reasons a volunteer has to spend a fair amount of time with us before they’re allowed into the insect enclosure.  Further, even volunteers who’ve handled bats before have to learn our way of handling them.  We’ve spoken out against inhumane handling practices before, and we can’t be sure what volunteers have been taught.

Syringes of soft food (blended mealworms and vitamins) are retrieved from the fridge and placed in hot-but-not-scalding water to heat it up for them, “bat nappies” (to gently wipe their faces as they are fed) are made from small sections of damp paper towels, and the feeding commences.  The bat rests in one hand, legs near the thumb and the fingers curled up around the bat without gripping it.  The thumb keeps the bat from wriggling backward out of your hand and the fingers give the bat a nice enclosed space to feel hidden and safe within.

Iris, and insect-eating bat (Brazilian free-tail) being hand-fed soft food. Her face is gently wiped with a soft cloth after she is full.

As for actually administering the food, one has to keep in mind that the syringes are longer than the bat itself and be aware of how much food is given at one time, how often, when the bat swallows, be careful to keep any from getting on the bats nostrils and a myriad other circumstances.  These tiny animals, if fed too quickly, can easily aspirate the food, which can lead to bacterial pneumonia and even death.  To avoid aspiration a seven-second rule is followed;  a tiny bit is given to the bats every seven seconds or so.  Some are curious about being held and will often stop to look at you as they’re eating, slowing down the count.  Others will actually chew on the syringe tip when they’re ready for another mouthful, and these can be fed slightly  faster while still being very careful to allow them to swallow before giving the next bite.

Miss Brown, the only big brown bat that requires hand-feeding, has a different process.  In her case, the food is injected from the syringe into a tiny dish from which she laps.  Another difference is that Miss Brown is a very mellow, cooperative bat.  She even tells us when shes finished by wiggling her little feet.

Oscar, the cave bat, waiting at the opening of his pouch in case anyone steps on his “lawn.”

Speaking of specific bats, and as a good way to close this long-winded glimpse into the insect bats lair, I feel like I should spotlight some of our individual insect bats, as they tend to get less attention than their more flamboyant fruit-eating cousins.  Some have their stories available on our website, but there are others, such as Oscar, the cave bat.  He, like Poppy, a flying fox bat in the fruit bat’s enclosure, is the only one of his kind in residence, but given his extremely territorial (grouchy) nature, we think he likes it that way.  Being territorial, he is in the same roosting pouch every day, and woe unto any other bat who gets too close.  In fact, he dislikes other bats roving around in general, and if there’s too much wandering going on, he’ll emerge from his pouch, yelling and chasing the errant bats not only away, but into another pouch nearby.  He doesn’t care which one, he just likes to have a clear idea of where the property lines are. If the cave were a neighborhood, he would be the little old man who yells at everyone who steps on his lawn.

Then we have Smiley.  That she is still with us is something that I feel we should be proud of, although she was rescued and rehabilitated long before I came to Bat World.  She was found at our wild sanctuary as a starving baby almost four years ago with a massive scabbed-over injury to the left side of her face; the injury was big enough that the left side of her face is as precise a location as can be given for it.  It was severe enough that she couldn’t nurse, so she was hand-fed from an eyedropper and treated against infection until she was able to heal and resume nursing.  The wound took her left eye and left half of her face badly disfigured, yet she is otherwise a healthy, happy and trusting bat. 

Smiley, rescued as an orphan with a severe wound to her face.


There’s also Goldilocks, who is ironically male, and an infamously fussy eater. Yes, he needs hand-feeding and it has to be just right.  There’s Keeper, an otherwise amiable bat who nonetheless chatters at you every single time he he’s picked up for his feeding.  Such vocalizations are usually a protest of annoyance in being disturbed from his incredibly busy schedule, but Keeper tends to go along with the flow regardless. We’re not sure what he’s saying but we know it’s him even before opening our hand to see whom it is that we have gathered.

Lastly, of course, there’s Ichabod.  He and I go way back. We first met on Halloween of last year in the warehouse I worked in; he had a wrist injury and was soldiering his way across our concrete floor looking for shelter.  I thought he was pretty tough when he started climbing our bay door with that swollen red wrist of his, but he went on to make me quit my job, move and start hanging around bats all day.  He is a bat to be reckoned with.

His wrist, once healed, wasn’t quite the same as it was before, and so he’s here for life.  Specifically, his wing is stuck a little splayed open.  It could be fixed with painful physical therapy – yes, there is physical therapy for bats – but it doesn’t seem to pose him any difficulty, nor would said therapy restore his ability to fly.  As he is by all indications a happy, healthy and sociable bat, we see no need to disrupt his life with a lot of pain and upset that won’t do much to improve the life that he’s already enjoying.

Ichabod, the free-tailed bat who stole author Mitch Gilley’s heart, prompting him to dedicate his life to bats.

All told, tending to the insect-eating bats is less physically demanding than the fruit bats, but requires so much patience and care that it can’t really be said to be easier.  And while they might be very reclusive, their social behaviors are a lot more observable, as they’re far more likely to just go about their business than fruit bats unless you’re directly interacting with them.  You see squabbles over territory, sudden convergences on the food dishes when fresh mealworms are offered, social gatherings, friendships forming and dissolving.  The more watchful bats will even give the others a chattering heads-up when they first spot you.  It doesn’t feel like a warning, as they don’t all hide any more than they usually do, but a simple relay of information to the colony. 

Honestly, they’re probably just calling out that it’s time to eat.

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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Isis

It was a lonely, unimaginably long road that brought Isis, an Egyptian fruit bat to where she belonged all along. Where it begins is unclear; her previous “owners” (a well-known amusement park) had thought she was eight years old. Isis is actually eighteen, so there’s ten years missing from her history. It’s a shame that she only found sanctuary as an elderly bat with cataracts who can’t quite hang as well as she used to. Regardless, we are so happy that she finally found peace at Bat World Sanctuary.

Isis being removed from the shipping crate after arriving at Bat World.

Isis spent most of the eight years at the amusement park with her mate. They were the only two bats at the noisy theme park. The theme park was hoping that Isis and her mate would reproduce, but their living conditions wouldn’t allow any offspring to survive. Toward the end, Isis’ mate died, so Isis lived alone in a small glass cage for several months, gawked at by large groups of people seven days a week.

Thankfully, the theme park grew tired of caring for Isis and contacted Bat World Sanctuary. The day of her arrival found Isis scared, both of the shipping ordeal she’d just endured, the strange new place, and the strange new person picking her up. She was so afraid that she would not even hang onto our hand with her feet, but we were gentle and spoke in a soft voice, and Isis finally realized that she was safe. We can’t imagine what she must have felt to enter the flight cage for the first time, to see dozens of Egyptian fruit bats just like her, cuddling together and playing with toys, and eating their fill of nutritious food every night.

Baby Ice-Ice, resting on a warmed rolled up cloth. Click to enlarge.

Still, there was one more difficulty left for Isis to face. Soon after her arrival, Isis gave birth. Elderly Isis had apparently become pregnant before her mate died and she found herself in a new home with a newborn pup to take care of. Overwhelmed, Isis was unable to care for her baby and it fell to the padded floor of the flight cage. Her baby was found almost immediately, warmed, fed and placed into Bat World’s incubator for hand rearing.

Isis with her baby. Click to enlarge.

As a few more days passed, Isis finally realized she was “home.” She became familiar with her keepers and in doing so learned to lookforward to the melon treats that always came with soft voices. A short week after giving birth, we heard Isis calling for her baby. Hoping for the best but prepared to continue hand-raising her pup, we brought Isis the pup she was seeking and carefully placed it near her on the flight cage ceiling. Isis immediately went to her baby and encouraged it to climb onto her body. Her pup began nursing just a few minutes later.

Isis eating her favorite treat of honeydew melon.

Today Isis’ baby is a few months old and well in every possible sense.

As for Isis herself, she appears very happy despite her cataracts and her arthritis. She lives a quiet, peaceful existence with friends and family all her own, and she will never be alone again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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