On February 3rd, 2016, around 10pm, I was just wrapping up the day when I saw a plea for help on our Facebook page from Lisa G, about an issue in Houston Texas that involved an elderly woman beating helpless free-tailed bats to death with her cane. (Caution, disturbing video on this link.)
The video sickened me to the core, and I was further frustrated by the fact that Houston is over 300 miles away from Bat World Sanctuary. The video also made it appear as though the woman was helpless and the bats were invading her home. However, free-tailed bats are shy and secretive. They hide in cracks and crevices as well as attics and caves. They do not hang out in the open. These bats would have to be pulled out of their roost in order to be beaten to death. Keep in mind that these animals have an intelligence level equivalent to that of dolphins. They have a complicated social structure that includes over 25 different vocalizations that make up their language. Mother free-tails only have one young per year and if anything happens to her pup, a mother will openly grieve for days with her mournful cries. Free-tailed bats are capable of eating up to 5,000 harmful flying insects nightly and they have a lifespan of over 15 years. Each bat that was killed had the potential of eating 27,375,000 harmful insects in its lifetime.
Because it was so late, my only recourse was to alert rescuers in the area as well as Marcelino Benito, the reporter at KHOU 11 News who covered the story and asked to be contacted if anyone could help. I left messages with Mr. Benito through email and his Facebook page that night as well as the following morning. I also put in calls first thing the following morning to our local game warden, KHOU 11 news, and our good friends at 911Wildlife, a humane exclusion company who works on behalf of wildlife as well as people. 911Wildlife was founded by Bonnie Bradshaw, a fellow wildlife rehabilitator. With offices throughout Texas, including Houston, they were able to immediately respond to this tragedy. 911Wildlife arrived at the woman’s house early that same morning and donated their time and equipment to humanely exclude the bats so no more would be needlessly killed. They also did a thorough search for survivors. Sadly, only five bats out of potentially hundreds survived her beatings. The 911Wildife crew transferred these tiny, broken souls to a local rescuer we had on standby, and the Houston Five are now with Bat World Sanctuary.
Later, I sent an email to Mr. Benito asking why he didn’t actually seek help for this woman. Having access to the internet granted him a wealth of information he could have easily used to help her. Instead, he chose to demonize bats in his report while filming her sickening brutality -which had apparently been going on for years. He even stood by while still-alive bats were thrown into a trash bag. Mr. Benito never responded to any of my emails or Facebook messages, nor the messages of dozens of other conservation-minded supporters. Many people wrote to express their extreme disappointment at the lack of any helpful information that KHOU 11 news provided for this woman or the bats. Instead, they chose to sensationalize bats and deepen the fears of people who don’t know better.
If there is a brighter note to this story it is that this colony of bats will no longer be in harms way since they have been humanely excluded. Dozens of people came together in a show of concern for these bats and the elderly woman as well. Thank you to all of you who emailed and called us out of concern for these bats, and thank you, especially Bonnie and crew at 911Wildlife – the bats would not have had a chance without your intervention. Thank you, Marsha P., who received the bats and thank you, Marzi P., who made an 11-hour trip in one day to transport the bats back to our Mid-Cities rescue center, where Kate, our Director of Special Projects stayed up most of the night treating and stabilizing the survivors.
As of this morning, the Houston Five -Timmy, Dash, Ella, Jane Ann, and Bee- are slowly recovering. Dash is in the best shape; she has some facial abrasions and internal bruising, but no fractures. Ella and Jane Ann are not in quite as good shape; they both had to have a full amputation and also have internal bruising. Timmy and Bee are in the worst shape; Timmy had a wing amputation and also a broken leg while Bee had a full amputation and severe internal injuries. All five bats are resting comfortably now, with pain medication, antibiotics, and vitamin supplements and all have started eating decent amounts of food (an increase in appetite is always a good sign!). They will remain in a ‘Hospital Hut’ for a few more days while their injuries stabilize. All of the bats are also receiving an iron supplement as they are anemic due to internal injuries. We are cautiously optimistic that they will all pull through, however, we will not be confident for at least another week.
Note: While amputations of a wing may seem extreme, bats, like dogs, can live rich, full lives without the use of a limb. The highly social and terrestrial nature of free-tailed bats in particular allows them to enjoy life outside of flight.
UPDATE – Feb 8, 2016:
Sadly, Ella passed away the day after posting this story, however, the remaining Houston Four, under the expert care of Kate Rugroden, our Director of Special projects, have now fully recovered. They will live their lives out in peace and comfort at our Bat World MidCities rescue center.
UPDATE – Feb 24, 2016:
The four survivors, now known as The Houston Four, have fully recovered and have adjusted to their new life at our rescue center, Bat World MidCities. The photo below was taken 2/24/16.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Amanda Lollar, volunteer Executive Director/Lead Caregiver
Amanda has acted in an unpaid position as Executive Director and Lead Animal Caregiver since 1994. She is an author of both scientific and popular literature about bats, including her most recent work, Standards and Medical Management for Captive Insectivorous Bats. In August of 2016 Amanda received The Carol Noon Award for Sanctuary Excellence and has twice been nominated for the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading prize for conservation. Click here to read her CV.
Dona Jenniges, Assistant Director Dona grew up in a small town outside of Seattle Washington and at a young age was saving animals of all kinds long before she even realized the extent of her love and respect for them. As an adult she spent 13 years in retail management. Three years ago, she had the opportunity to step away from an unfulfilling career and move to Texas. With her new found free time she started volunteering for the Weatherford-Parker County Animal shelter which then led to fostering and rescuing for many local animal rescue agencies. It was then that she realized she wanted to devote her entire life to the rescue and rehabilitation of animals. ‘I truly believe that every animal on the face of this earth is here for a reason. If any species, no matter how big or small, goes extinct, I can’t help but think that will throw off the balance of all living things and, in time, will greatly affect the world as we know it’. Dona looks forward to learning everything she can about bats in order to educate others. ‘When I get to work and look up at all those cute little faces staring down at me at me, it just fills my heart with such love and happiness. I can’t think of any better way to spend my day.’
Mariah Cognac, Assistant Caregiver
Mariah has been fortunate to have worked with many species during her time volunteering at rehab facilities and working at the Dallas Zoo. She has a B.S. in Aquatics and Fisheries Biology and enjoys spending time on the water. Since she was a small child she has surrounded herself with the company of animals, basically welcoming anything with hooves, paws, scales or claws. Mariah feels as though conservation and education are key to the preservation of species. “So many people have disdain for bats only because they know very little about them. I’m so pleased to have found Bat World and look forward to not only expanding my knowledge of bats, but also sharing that information with others.”
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 well over a decade 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 slightlyfaster 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.
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.
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.
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.