(Continued from the Craft Store Rescue, Part One)
We’d only just left the craft shop victorious and near-helplessly laughing, and now we were going back. Amanda had met us in the parking lot and said they’d called in the two minutes since we left saying there was another one. Myself, I just figured it was the other half of a teenage bat duo that had dared each other to go inside, this one hiding while the other stirred things up in the shop. In other words, this second one was the smart one; in any good duo, there’s always the Smart One.
Amanda knew better. This was August, when bat activity is at or near its peak. They’re gearing up for their migratory return to Mexico, swarming is in full swing and life is one long love-drunk mosquito feast. That meant it was possible that there could be a great many more bats in that building, likely all juvies, young and inexperienced bats who might be lost inside that building, trapped over nothing more than a joy ride with an unexpectedly harsh learning curve, as joy rides often foist upon the young. I felt good this time, still marveling over the first rescue just minutes before. How it had just let me pick it up like that. Amanda had told me that would happen, though it seemed unbelievable at the time; she is convinced that on some level beyond the instinctual need to evade, they know that we’re trying to help them. I was inclined to agree now. Certainly I was too inexperienced to credibly disagree, at any rate. And this second bat, we would soon discover, disagreed entirely.
Once we arrived we were led to the back – it’s always thrilling on some very mundane level to gain access to the Back Room of any establishment – and there spied the first bat’s compatriot flying frantic circles. The left part of the room was partitioned off the from the rest, and we passed it by again and again trying to keep the bat in sight and wait for it to tire and land. It eventually decided the smaller extremity had more nooks and crannies to use; shelving, things on those shelves, exposed studs and door frames in the wall, etc. There were a couple near-catches on the shelving, both times almost coming close enough to stroke its fur before it exploded into the air with a startling suddenness that can only be summoned up by the young. Then it alighted upon a door frame whose studs were exposed and easily slipped in between them. It was a narrow space, no bigger than half an inch running the entire height of the door, and there was no way our hands would fit to pluck up our refugee. Then, as if this weren’t enough, it worked its way to the very top of the gap, hemming itself in tightly on three sides.
Had I not been processing my first rescue just a few minutes before, the fact that I was now a bat rescuer, that when someone calls about a bat in their bedroom, I’m now one of the people who shows up, I might have known what to do. Pride and incredulity have always been great hindrances to clear thought.
Angela, however, had been through this phase already and retrieved an old dry erase marker from a nearby shelf. It was just the thing.
Here’s an obscure fact about Mexican free tails: they really don’t like anything to touch their backside. Tail, pelvis, feet, anything back there; they hate it. It’s likely a defense mechanism, but whatever the reason, it makes them move, and without having to use anything even approaching force.
Angela exploited this now and prodded gently with the dry erase marker (with the cap still on, of course), and while the bat resisted, it just couldn’t stand it and took little time in crawling from the gap. I in turn wasted little time myself in getting a black gloved hand around it. We’d caught the Smart One.
Then, incredibly, as we turned to leave, another bat flew past, but this one lacked the moxy of its friend, and it didn’t elude us for long. Still, while I was unmistakably proud of this new work that I’d just found I could do, and do well, there was little to exult over. Three bats in what was essentially a single two-part trip was troubling.
When we got back, Amanda got straight to work rehydrating the poor things while Angela and I stood close and discussed what we knew up to now, about the building and the current situation both. We decided that the worst-case scenario for this problem – that a great many bats had again been trapped in the abandoned upper floors of the building – was too possible and too severe to ignore. Not likely perhaps, but easily possible. We had to go up there, knowing that one of those abandoned pitch-dark floors had once been a funeral home and had seen as much human suffering and death as that of bats, that we might be walking into a mass grave, that we might find dozens of them in similar or worse shape as these, that we might find enough to make for a very long night for them and us.
Once our poor juvies had been tended, we all three set out to a highly unusual excursion; we try to always keep one volunteer at Bat World, and Amanda does her best to be there all the time, but if our worst case scenario played out, we’d all be needed.
Though now we arrived unbidden, the shop owner gladly led us into the back and gave us permission to ascend the gaping dark stairway into a much older place than I for one was accustomed to walk in.
Of course most of the buildings of downtown Mineral Wells were built in the late 1800s, and I’d certainly in my entire life here been in a few of them before, but now, here, above the shop, that age was laid bare. The stairways sagged just slightly, keeping us against the wall as we climbed, going one at a time. Age had stripped away whatever finish or paint the wooden bannisters and floors might have once had, and even the appearance of having been sanded smooth. The doors were all old, heavy and creaky, and at one end was the old viewing room, now empty. The poet in me wants to say that the sheer amount of tears shed in this room over the years could still be felt, but honestly even that was gone.
And darkness. It was dark like I’d never seen before, not outside of a closet I was hiding in playing hide and seek as a child. Even under the darkest new moon there are still stars trickling their nigh-invisible light. Not here. Here we had only our voices and our headlamps with which to navigate this old place that no longer had anything for humans and bats alike.
Amanda had been here before and has spent so much time around bats that their capacity for navigating this sort of totalitarian darkness has rubbed off on her, and she immediately set us to work closing those doors over there, opening this one, checking the ones back there, closing off everything but the hallway so that the bats couldn’t dally in the rooms off the side, but had to continue either downward to the shop where they would be seen and rescued or go back up to the top floor where they could leave again. That done, we made to ascend to the top floor.
As we crested the stairs, we found a dead free tail.
He was only two flights of stairs and a terrified shopkeeper away from rescue, but he didn’t make it. He was stiff, but clearly hadn’t been here long. We left him where he fell – he was a wild animal, this was a wild place, and he was not trash to be disposed of – and kept on, wondering how many more we’d find and if the three recuperating back in the rehab room worried where their friend had gone.
We found no more, and selectively closed off doors as we had below to minimize their chances of getting lost. We also found where they’d been coming in: a hole in the ceiling of a closet. The bathroom that the closet was in was little bigger than the closet itself, and that was what was posing such a problem. For a bat to fly straight up they need to build up speed, and there was simply not enough space for it. We scavenged a slender board that bats could easy grab onto and leaned it up against the mouth of the hole so that they could climb up and out. With much shorter pieces we did likewise for the lidless toilet and sink and made our way back down. On our way back to daylight we advised the shop owners to close off that stairway and returned to Bat World.
Three days passed, and with each one the juvies regained their strength and restlessness, and as one always hopes but is never quite precisely happy about, the time came to release them. It’s the ultimate hallmark of a successful rehabilitation, but after hand feeding them day after day, it’s a bittersweet moment.
We do our releases at the wild sanctuary, another old building purchased by Amanda years back to protect the bats that had taken up residence in it. Currently it houses approximately 50,000 bats in the summertime; in its heyday it had three times that many. As with every other aspect of this rescue, this was my first time to experience it.
I wouldn’t forget it. Nobody would forget it. The ceiling was very high, and the walls had been knocked out to create a huge expanse for the bats to fly in yet stay out of the weather. Screens had been put up to deny them access to the rest of the building. This was for their own safety, so they wouldn’t get lost. Still, they didn’t want for room to flap their wings. At all. Otherwise the building showed it age much like the one we’d explored days ago.
But the bats…they covered every beam, every rafter, they were strewn across the walls, and perhaps double that number again were filling the air constantly. Their smell – bats smell like bats the way dogs smell like dogs – was powerful, drowning out all else. They whipped fearlessly past your head, secure in their own domain, in the arrogance possessed by a creature in its element. Their tens of thousands of voices blended into a smooth, pulsing rhythm, as if gathered here as a colony they spoke as one. Amanda was walking to the area where she releases bats and telling me about this literally awesome place she’d brought me to, and I didn’t hear a word. I was only staring upward, actually tangibly speechless perhaps for the first time in my life.
Then, of course, I felt the bat urine start pelting my head and determined that staring upward with my mouth agape wasn’t really a good idea. It’s not a place that one takes a casual stroll through; we have to cover up with protective gear just to go inside for a moment. If that’s the price to see a sight like that, it’s a very small one.
The juvies appeared similarly overwhelmed; it was very likely their first time seeing something like this too. As Amanda retrieved them from the bat carrier they hunkered excitedly on the tips of her fingers, leaning eagerly forward toward the teeming brothers and sisters they never knew they had, tentatively flapping their wings just on the cusp of becoming airborne only to back off again and consider the situation more. Perhaps they wondered if they would be accepted, even though bats are very accepting and even altruistic animals. Maybe they were just as overwhelmed as I was. All that could be known for sure is that as apprehensive as this big new place made them, the rolling manifold voice of this place entranced them, and they knew that their place was with it, not us. To the side, I stood ready to collect them if they fell, and we, human and bat alike, waited.
One finally made the leap, taking to the air and quickly losing itself in the crowd. The second followed, nearly falling to the ground before finding its lift and rising up. More hesitant, the last pup took a little longer.
We were grateful for the extra few seconds with it, because too soon it lit off toward its friends, and just like that the story was over.