What follows is a moving essay by Ceacy about her work with bats in Colrain, Massachusetts.
Masters of the dark
By Ceacy Henderson
For them, it is all about the dark. Safety is in the dark, freedom is in the dark; the crawling out of their hiding places, taking wing, spreading out those amazing membrane-covered bones, the hand wing, those tiny elongated bones reaching outward into the night, catching air, lifting upward, carrying their furred bodies into the realm of sound and speed, echolocation bouncing back the “unseen” world in details unimaginable. They are high-speed hunters, up to 40 mph, eating a thousand insects an hour, a thousand heartbeats a minute. They are, of course, bats.
In that blackness of a moonless night, bats experience the world in ways I cannot fathom, but I see them up close now as I take care of my big brown bat babies in my new role as a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in bats. I have had them for a month. In the beginning, at just 10 days old when their mother rejected them and I took over, they had just emerged from the darkness of closed eyes. Nearly naked, utterly unable to care for themselves, unable to stay warm, vulnerable in every way, they still instinctively shun the light, hide beneath the cover of a cloth in the tiny mesh enclosure I kept them in.
Slipping into tight places, sometimes hanging from their hind feet, sometimes lying horizontal beneath the fabric on the floor of their cage, they wait for night. In the beginning, I fed them every 2-3 hours all day until midnight, then started again at four or five in the morning; then every three hours, stretching the time between feedings until now I feed them only three times a day. All day they are quiet, nearly silent, biding their time, until I disturb them to feed them, then back to their resting. In the daytime you can walk into a room full of bats and not even know they are there, a quarter of an inch is all they need to slip into a crevice out of sight, away from harm.
Now at night my babies are learning to fly, trying to master the essential skill that distinguishes them from all other mammals. At 38 days they are leaping from one side of their enclosure to the other, hopping across the floor, scampering hither and thither, practicing those all-important hunting techniques. Two nights ago I caught moths and released them into the bats’ enclosure. At first they evidenced just curiosity at this fluttering insect, then suddenly, as if instinct instructed, one pounced on the moth. I could hear the distinctive crunching of insect being devoured, a sound I know well having fed these growing bats mealworms as soon as they could digest anything other than formula, a substitute for mother’s milk made from Similac, water, powdered egg whites and organic flax oil. I was ecstatic despite the late hour; my babies were growing up.
I was in my studio at midnight, not to feed the “juvies,” but to feed the newest baby, every 40 minutes all night long — the surviving twin of a pair that I had picked up at eight that evening, newly rescued from the deck of someone’s house. Perhaps their mother could not care for twins, perhaps she had never returned from foraging, fallen prey to the numerous other species that includes bat on the menu — owls, snakes, cats, hawks, or perhaps a victim of violence at the hands of their most dangerous enemy, humans.
So many people do not like bats. A surprising number of folks involuntarily shudder when I mention that I rescue injured, debilitated or orphaned bats. They almost pull away from me physically, as if the bats might emerge from my sleeves at any moment. A look of suspicion, almost mistrust, as if to love bats is to fraternize with the devil. But I don’t judge them . . .well, maybe a little, but I actually understand that bats are as alien to most of us as if they were from another planet.
Most folks are more familiar with lions or dolphins or polar bears than they are with the one of the most numerous mammals on earth. There are more than 1,300 different species of bats in the world, living everywhere except the polar caps. Yet, even in New England, where there are nine different species, most of us think all bats are pretty much the same. And why not? They only come out at dusk, and unless one gets into a building, usually frantically trying to find its way out, we rarely get the opportunity to see one up close. That is the way they like it — secrecy, obscurity, hidden in safety in groups, 10s to 100s, sometimes by the millions, in large caves or under bridges, in abandoned buildings, making their nightly migrations out to hunt for insects or nectar or fruit depending on the species. There are even bats that eat fish and, of course, there is the one species of bat that eats blood from animals. Not people. Despite the sensationalism of the vampire myths, and despite the Transylvanian origins of Dracula, the vampire bat lives only in South America. Still we fear them, tiny as they are. We fear this flying wonder precisely because it is superbly unique among mammals, the only winged mammal in the world, finely adapted to high-speed flight at night, precisely when we are least able to see them.
As a new rehabilitator, I have had to overcome my own fear of handling the adults with their needle-sharp teeth and inherent dislike of being touched and restrained by people. Although I am also astounded by their tolerance, these wild animals held captive for their own protection have no way of knowing that I mean them no harm, and yet they seem to understand when someone is trying to help them. They suddenly stop resisting, refrain from biting, give a warning when they are frightened or are being hurt before defending themselves, if the warning is not heeded. I have experienced this already. I was holding an adult bat while learning to do a health inspection, which involved extending each wing, when the bat lightly bit me twice, not even penetrating the nitrile glove I was wearing, until in my inexperience I managed to hurt him, so he finally resorted to a real bite, a message not to be misunderstood. I felt awful, not because I was bitten, even though later I couldn’t even locate the place where his tiny teeth had punctured my skin, but remorse that, despite his warning, I had hurt him in my ineptitude. The curse of being a beginner at this.
What impresses me the most is this new baby. He looked nearly dead when he arrived, a naked little bag of bones in a practically transparent hairless skin. Half the length of my thumb and not nearly as wide, an anatomy lesson on display, every bone visible in exquisite detail, bulging, un-opened eyes on his skeletal head. I gave him no chance at all. I had to locate his mouth using a bright light and a magnifying glass. His first meal consisted of no more than a drop of formula on his lips. Then given a drop every half hour to 40 minutes, a frequent glance at the nearly transparent skin on his tummy evidence that he had in fact swallowed some because you can clearly see milk in their stomachs from the outside. Each time I went to feed the little guy I expected to find him dead, but each time I could see him still breathing, his bony ribs rapidly rising and falling as he lay prostrate on the heating pad wrapped in a little square of polar fleece. Until sometime in the middle of the night when I went to feed him, he was no longer in his papoose but instead I found him crawling along the floor of his enclosure exploring his new world. Later on I found him hanging upside down, sometimes by both feet, sometimes just one; toe nails hooked into the soft mesh — his life force remarkable. Now that he associates me with food, each time I go to feed him he clicks and squeaks, clasps my hand with every toenail clinging on for dear life, desperately latching his mouth on to the eye dropper as I feed him his miniscule amount of milk every two hours and check his tummy to make sure I don’t over feed him.
His frantic survival instinct speaks volumes about what has made bats so successful. They may be small, but they are mighty, and although they are mightily misunderstood, things are changing. We are beginning to understand how important they are to our ecosystems — dispersing seeds, pollinating fruits, ridding us of crop pests and disease carrying mosquitoes.
So here I am, decidedly not a night person, staying up to all hours, marveling at one of nature’s miracles, masters of the darkness, messengers of the mystery of this fabulous living world in all its many remarkable incarnations.
Ceacy, shown below, is an animal rehabilitator specializing in bats.
Visit this Baby Warm link to contribute funds needed for an incubator to help save orphaned bats. Update! The total monies needed to buy an incubator for Ceacy's orphaned bats were raised soon after publication of this blog post! A big thank you to her generous contributors!
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