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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.

The Craft Shop Rescue, Part 2

(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.

Bat World’s wild sanctuary (click to enlarge)

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.

The Craft Shop Rescue, Part One

It was around mid-day during my second week of work, just as we were preparing to dice an entire grocery store’s produce section for Peekaboo‘s dinner, when the call came in.  Of course Angela and I could only hear one half of the conversation, but the other half wasn’t hard to discern.

Broken sentences as the caller interrupted repeatedly in what seemed like a panic. Amanda trying three separate times to say “I’m not asking you to touch it…” and instead asking the caller to toss a sheet or towel over it so that it would be concealed yet gently restrained, keeping it in place for our arrival and helping it to feel as secure as a lost, terrified and likely dehydrated bat can.  It sounds odd, I know, but crevice dwelling bats absolutely adore tight, confined spaces because it makes them feel hidden and safe.  A few more aborted attempts to communicate, and then just like that it was away from the bananas and off to a local craft store to do yet another thing that I never thought I’d do:  go on a rescue call for Bat World Sanctuary.

It wasn’t how I wanted my first rescue to be.  I’d hoped for people who cared for their welfare, who didn’t see them as harbingers of disease and mouth foam, who understood why we did what we did and would be supportive so that all I had to worry about was the technique of approaching and catching a wild bat.  We weren’t going to get that, but I was thankful that this wouldn’t be Angela’s first rescue, at least.  I could simply play a support role.  For eleven years previous to this, support was largely my job: anticipating what was needed and then doing it.  Perhaps I’d suck at rescuing bats – we’d find out soon – but I was good at support.  Reminding myself calmed the nerves a bit.

The building in which the shop resided had for years been problematic for juvenile bats who might have mastered the art of becoming airborne but might not be so good at staying there yet, much less the no doubt intricate and delicate process of navigating via echolocation.  Ever since Bat World’s inception, young bats have frequently made their way inside and subsequently been unable to find their way out. Ballpark estimates are that over one thousand bats have been pulled out of that building over the years.  Conversely, there is perhaps no way to accurately judge how many simply died in there due to the recalcitrance of the building’s management.  To the extent that Bat World has been allowed to help, however, the number of lost bats has decreased from a few hundred every summer to a mere dozen now and then over the past decade and a half.

With this, a carrier pouch, a nitrile glove and various literatures that would hopefully allay some of the irrational fear of our panicking merchants, we parked outside and walked in.  Angela engaged them right away, and I was happy to see my hopes of keeping to the kiddie pool for this one were playing out.  Alas, and also fortunately, it was not to be.

The shopkeepers, before describing their absolute certainty that this fragile three inch long mammal intended to kill them, informed us that it was last seen under a table.  In turn, we informed them that it was no longer there.  As we searched they bombarded us with questions that Angela, sensing perhaps that I was on the verge of overwhelmed, answered:

What do you do with them after you catch them?  You KEEP them?  You’re TRAINING to do this?  How many do you have over there?  So will it try to attack us?  Are you sure?  It was flying really close to my head.  Why do they do that?  

This continued as we spotted the bat above a display rack.  It continued as they very eagerly fetched a ladder so we could get it.  It continued as I was preparing to be johnny-on-the-spot with the carrier pouch, and it only stopped when Angela said the words:

“Do you want to get this one?”  All three waited for my response.  I was On The Spot.

What could I do?  My ego wasn’t about to permit me to say no thank you, Angela, I’m afraid of heights and failure.  Couldn’t be done.  There was, in fact, only one thing that could be done: catch the wild bat that had been “terrorizing” these women all morning.

Let’s stop and break this down for a second, because I feel like a lot of people think animal rescue is going somewhere and plucking up a grateful puppy from, like, a mud puddle, and it licks your face and you giggle and all present go Awww, is the widdle puppy all muddy?  YES he IS, he is SOOO muddy!  and we shall clean him with kisses! and then we all cuddle the rest of the day.

No.

This was not a puppy; it was a cornered, frightened wild animal.  You know that saying “so ‘n’ so fought like a cornered animal”?  I do too, and yet what was I doing?  Putting on a glove and climbing up a ladder and a phobia so I could corner a wild animal.  It wasn’t like rounding a corner and finding you’d accidentally hemmed in some stray dog, I was intentionally laying the trap.  A benign trap, but a trap just the same.  Climbing up a ladder thinking Well good, this is what I quit my job to do, what a great decision.  Climbing up a ladder wondering at how I’d come to be on this ladder at this moment preparing to do something that by conventional terms could be fairly described as ill advised, high above the ground where with each rung my body’s refusal to move and risk upsetting my balance became harder to overcome, and all with three women standing below all watching intently.

One rung, and then another.  You know how it is when you’re doing something that you’re completely certain will result in some manner of harm coming to you; you just move mechanically while your brain is throwing every brake it can lay synapses on.  One rung and then another while in my head the bat took off at the last second over and over again, barreling straight into my face, and then we both plummet to the floor.

Then, suddenly, my brain’s unlikely and revolving perambulations ceased, because there it really was; the errant beast was a scant few inches from my face: a little juvenile, certainly far more frightened than any of us, lost, dehydrated, nearly spent, but by no means lacking in defiance.  You know how teenagers are.  It looked me right in the eye, hunkered down and braced its forearms.  Whether for flight or, you know, actual flight, I wasn’t sure.  I intensely wished that somebody would happen into the shop just then, whereupon the clever and courageous little creature would, instead of injuring/humiliating me, seize the opportunity and fly straight for the open door and to freedom.

That didn’t happen.

So, with heart pounding and breath held, I reached out.  From below I heard “You’re going to use your hand??

This made me desperately want to laugh; my hand was gloved, after all.  Those of you who’ve spent a good deal of your childhood in church know my predicament:  when it’s really bad to laugh, the urge can literally become uncontrollable.  Laughing here, now, so close to this bat, would have been really bad.  My lips tightened into one very strained grin, and I was grateful then to be facing the wall so it couldn’t be seen.

I can’t really make you understand how hard I clamped down on that snicker in my throat except to say that I was immensely proud afterward that it didn’t erupt right into that poor bat’s face.  When the spasm of mirth relented somewhat, I placed a cup of fingers over it, leaving only a mad bitey scramble between my fingers as its only viable method of escape, the very thing I’d been dreading.  Here we go.  My fingers moved slowly to pick it up…

One the four juvies we eventually recovered. She doesn’t have a name; she was to return to the wild soon where she wouldn’t need a name or anything else from us.

…and it kept still, and I plucked it from the wall completely uneventfully.  Then it actually crawled into the carrier pouch, and did so eagerly.  There was a brief moment of disbelief.  Did I just rescue a bat?  Again?

“Got it!” I called out, found my pride, and descended like Caesar returning to Rome from war and the crossing of the Rubicon.  In my exultation I couldn’t pay attention to the babbling even if I’d wanted to, and Angela was handling it like she was a walking field guide to bats anyway.

Actually, I really have to hand it to Angela.  She fielded every question like she’d been asked each one a hundred million times, and even managed to get these two women concerned about the welfare of the bat I captured, and hoping that it would be okay.  That was a sentiment that neither of us had expected to hear, and Angela elicited it from two women who were convinced that the bat was trying to kill them in a few minutes.

And with that, we left, and as soon as Angela mentioned that she could see me trying not to laugh up on that ladder, we both completely lost it and spent the drive back quoting the two shopkeepers between convulses of laughter.  I wouldn’t want to speak for Angela, but I really needed that.

Don’t get me wrong:  it’s okay to not know that bats are about as benign as animals come.  The societal preconceptions are old and prevalent, and for many it’s disturbing to believe that the conventional “wisdom” could be so very wrong.  To a volunteer at a bat sanctuary, though, it is hilarious.  Once you’ve hand fed a few disabled bats and wiped their faces with little bat nappies, you don’t really see the whole Dracula thing anymore.

We pulled into the driveway ready to bring Amanda the bat we’d fetched and share the story of our success when we saw Amanda coming out of the staff entrance to meet us.  They’d called again while we were en route, having found another one in the back.

We had to go back, and as we drove we both silently wondered how many bats might really be in that old building that hadn’t yet been seen.

Continued in Part 2

Introductions

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.

Ichabod

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.

Mitch, sweeping the insect bats flight enclosure.

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.

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