By Amanda Lollar, Founder & President, Bat World Sanctuary
In the early nineties, when I was still new at rehabbing bats, the common belief was that orphaned insectivorous bats could not be released back to the wild because they wouldn’t know how to catch food (according to research, their mothers taught them). After raising several orphans to young adulthood and watching them navigate a flight cage with ease I began to question the notion that they could not be released. After all, it was instinct for these orphans to fly and it was instinct for them to echolocate, so why wouldn’t they use those two skills to find food?
The orphans were rescued from our wild sanctuary of 100,000+ free-tailed bats. I decided to release a few hand-raised flighted orphans the following summer and then track their survival. I devised a way to permanently mark them that would not be detrimental to their health (such as banding, which is highly fatal). I finally decided on a small animal tattoo gun, and I chose the the right earlobe to mark the bat. The ear was chosen because it was easily visible when the bats hang upside down from the rafters. A microbat’s ears are very small so a number system could not be used. Instead I used simple dots. Throughout the nineties the only tattoo paste I found available was black. Then, in the early 2000’s I found green ink and switched to using that. Every orphan released in 2001 had one green dot, those released in 2002 had 2 green dots, and everything from 2003 forward had 3 green dots (because there simply wasn’t enough room on their tiny ears for more dots).
Every summer, after releasing orphans, I searched on a daily basis for a tattooed ear among the tens of thousands of faces and ears in the wild sanctuary. Finally, in 2008, a couple of weeks after releasing orphans, I found one hanging from the rafters. His belly was stuffed full, but with what? Could he have found a lactating female and been lucky enough to adopted by a new mom even though he was basically a teenager? As luck would have it he pooped in my hand when I lifted him off the rafter. This was very exciting because if his poop contained insect parts then it was proof that they could indeed find food on their own. I cradled the precious “sample” in my gloved hang like a teensy nugget of gold, took it back to our facility and examined it under a microscope. Low and behold, there were dozens of insect pieces, including shiny shell fragments from beetles. Finally, proof that insect-eating orphaned bats could be released and learn to forage for insects on their own.
But then more speculation arose: okay, so orphaned bats can be released and even survive, BUT, could they survive the annual migration to Mexico and back, and even raise young of their own? That question was answered when, finally, in 2010, I spotted a beautiful, healthy, lactating female on the rafters of our wild sanctuary with three green dots on her ear. Finding her among 100,000 other bats on the rafters was akin to finding a message in a bottle, something near impossible. She appeared to be around 5 years of age and she was proof that orphaned bats can be released, survive, migrate and even raise young of their own.
Over the past 20 years we’ve received thousands of calls from the public regarding grounded and injured bats. Over all these years I have continued to check the right ear of every single bat that came in, but never saw tattoo. On Sat night, August 15, 2015, around 10:30pm we received a call about a grounded bat in the city park. The bat was hoping on the ground and couldn’t get any lift. The caller had placed the bat into a box and called us right away. After we were back at the facility I had a chance to thoroughly examine the bat. She appeared old and seemed very tired, she had mites covering her wing membrane and her tail was injured. She has been grounded for a while because she was very thin. After hydrating her I did my usual check of the right ear and my jar dropped. There they were – two faded but magnificent green dots on her right ear. That meant she was saved as a starving orphan the summer of 2002, and she was now 13 years old. It took her a little while, but I could tell she slowly started to recognize her surroundings; the roosting pouches, the sounds of the other bats in rehab, and then finally the food, which she gratefully ate. She even nuzzled my finger when I stroked her tiny face after she ate.
The following morning I immediately went to check on her. Sadly, when I removed her from a roosting pouch I could tell she was dying. She passed away a few seconds later, in the same hands that saved her some 13 years ago. I am showing these photos after she died because she should be remembered for all she did during her lifetime. This beautiful, ragged little soul migrated over 30,000 miles on her way to and from Mexico every single year, she likely raised 6 to 8 youngsters of her own, and she ate an estimated 23,725,000 insect pests during her lifetime. And lastly, she is beyond a shadow of a doubt, 100% proof positive that orphaned insectivorous bats can indeed be released to live the rich, full lives they deserve.
Many of you have tracked the progress of the new facility via our Facebook updates, but now the preliminary stages of moving in are underway. We’ll be operating at our same address of 20 years for the time being; with the bats requiring constant care it’s not simply a matter of packing everything up and moving it from here to there. So, for the next month both our current facility and the new facility will need to be operational so that the only interruption to the bats’ routines is a short car ride when the final day of moving arrives.
To that end, we’ve been putting special effort into the new flight enclosures and the new clinic, as these areas always will be the heart of Bat World. The interiors of the enclosures are being designed and laid out, cabinets and shelves have been assembled (by myself, with several do-overs) and a forest mural is being hand-painted around the flight enclosures by the very talented Sarah Kennedy, an artist and photographer who has volunteered at Bat World for several years. Sarah flew all the way from New York to do this for us. Those of you who’ve ordered our book Baby See-through will be familiar with her artwork. We’re extremely grateful for her time and effort in helping us create such a scenic environment for our residents.
Even my brother got in on the action, helping Amanda and me to move clinic supplies and furniture yesterday. In fact, we got so focused on loading up a desk, boxes of formula, supplements, medical supplies, reference books, as much as we could that we forgot to leave any space for him in the back to ride in the back of the vehicle. We’d have unloaded some stuff to make room for him, but he insisted on sandwiching himself between boxes and making the trip. It was a small selfless act, and we appreciated it. You know how it is when you’re moving: the smallest thing can solicit the most profound gratitude. This applies doubly so in the midst of a sweltering Texas summer. Thanks, Mark.
Volunteers spent the 4th of July hanging cabinets and setting up incubators for orphaned and injured bats, because alongside all this transition, nature keeps on being nature, and right now in nature bats’ activity is at its peak. In other words, it’s baby season. We’ve taken in 11 free tail pups this week, and just today I went to pick up 3 mother bats that had gotten lost and trapped in a building. They were quite dehydrated and sluggish, but with injections of electrolytes for hydration and small feedings throughout the day they bounced back quickly. Thankfully, they were able to be released that very night and as predicted, they flew straight back to their roost, likely to find their very hungry babies as quickly as possible.
We can’t save every single bat in need – nobody can – but thanks to the support of our incredibly loyal base of donors, many, many baby bats are saved from prolonged suffering and given a second chance at life. Your donations have helped us put formula into a newborn orphan’s belly, provided pain medications and antibiotics for injured bats, and most importantly, you have helped us built a new facility so that we can continue saving even badly wounded babies and adults, giving them a chance to fly free once again. And to think, we have only just begun!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My name is Mitch Gilley, and with this blog I hope to get you all acquainted with the daily workings of Bat World Sanctuary along with me. While I’ve written for Bat World for a while now, I only have four days as a full-time volunteer worker, which means that just as I’m getting a handle on what I’ve been taught so far, I’m also seeing just how much more there is to learn.
You might wonder how one finds themselves quitting a perfectly adequate and very steady job to instead come into contact with guano, mealworms and half-chewed fruit every day. The short answer: Peekaboo and Ichabod. The long answer: well, it’s long, but here goes.
On October 31st (yes, Halloween) of last year, I happened across an injured Mexican free tail in my previous employer’s warehouse where I worked. Being someone who’s always hated to see animals suffer, it broke my heart to see the bat who would eventually be christened Ichabod by Facebook drag himself across the warehouse; being someone who was very affected by a school presentation by Amanda Lollar as a boy, I knew full well that help was close by and that I could get him to it. Ichabod himself was putting forth nothing less than heroic effort – you try climbing a bay door when your wrist is broken and swollen up to twice its size – but the fact remained that he couldn’t fly, and a flightless bat in the wild is not long for this world.
It wasn’t the smoothest bat rescue ever undertaken, but eventually he was collected as gently as possible thanks to Bat World’s online how-to and taken to one of the best places in the world for an injured bat to be. I ran a blog at the time and spent much of the next month writing up the story before kicking off an impromptu email to Amanda asking how poor Ichabod was faring. I was genuinely curious, but the story also needed closure.
Word came back, and from one of my childhood heroines no less, that Ichabod was well, but that his wrist had been too badly hurt for him to be able to fly again, so he’d be a lifelong resident of Bat World Sanctuary. Word also came back that Amanda wanted to share my blog on Bat World’s Facebook page once it was ready. A quick check confirmed that something like 40,000 people would end up reading it, and while I’d had previous experience with a previous mass incursion to my blog, it was still with a good and strong case of nerves that I proceeded.
Still, all was well, and then Dottie Hyatt, the Vice President of Bat World, asked me to volunteer my writing services. Now, I will at this point let you in on a well-kept secret among writers: we are all egotistical, despite whatever other positive character traits we might have. It’s not a dig, it’s simply inherent to being the kind of person who says to themselves “You know what? The stuff I think? It’s awesome, and I’m going to tell everyone.” Between this and the high esteem in which I held the people asking, I instantly said yes.
Before I knew it, I was spending my days tending the bats directly, preparing their food, cleaning their cages, feeding the ones who’ve gotten used to me already and attempting to woo the ones that haven’t. This includes Peekaboo, because while she gave me her blessing on my very first visit to Bat World – I was crafty and used a passion fruit shampoo so I would smell edible – she remains a little shy. This is no doubt a shrewd plot to prompt me to bribe her with honeydew, which is working flawlessly.
I see what’s possible in my fellow volunteer Angela, with whom Peekaboo is utterly in love. She’d been working selflessly seven days a week until my arrival was able to offer some days off, and I’m told that Peekaboo was beside herself with joy upon Angela’s return, as evidenced by the picture posted to Bat World’s Facebook on Sunday. She doesn’t normally swing on that toy, that was almost certainly celebratory.
And then, of course, there’s Amanda. With her, bats that have done nothing but shrink away from both Angela and myself come right up to her for their morning treats. Little Jamaican fruit bats will flit past and pluck honeydew from her hand. Even the very shy flying foxes, some of which were taken from places in which humans treated them very badly, will approach her without reservation. It’s interesting to watch these extraordinarily wary, reticent animals come up to her. I’ve only been there a few days now, but that’s long enough to get the sense that it’s very difficult to win their trust, and it’s clear that Amanda won it a long time ago. They are entirely different animals around her. Except for Peekaboo, for whom all humans are mere pairs of stilts.
It certainly makes you wonder what the other bats think of her.
There’s so much more to say: the experience of stepping into first Bat World Sanctuary, and then into its inner sanctum, the flight cages, is easily a long post unto itself, which is precisely what I’m going to do.