I’ve always been bats about bats. Long before I spent a week under the spell of a little brown bat Mirella had proudly carried in, I read about bats and looked bug-eyed at pictures of them. The phrase I most uttered while under the enchantment of bats was “W…wow!”
Long after “Bat Masterson” had crept out of my life (flying off into the upper reaches of my Oregon barn), I would giggle uncontrollably just to think of him. Little brown bats are exactly that—little. My torn-wing charge needed to be fed with a surgical irrigating syringe. A bigger dropper than that and I’d have quickly drowned him. The only way I could guide the syringe to the pin-prick hole that he claimed for a mouth was to use a magnifying glass.
Oddly enough, even though I needed my bi-focals to see his eyes and his toes, I could see his fangs unaided by any kind of magnification. It’s not that they were that big—of course not—it’s that they were that white. Gleaming actually, like tiny splinters of moonlight.
The only bat to cross my path since B. Masterson was the little cold dead one I found on my doormat, who seemed to have been the harbinger of several years of medical horror.
So when Roberta, WildCare’s Bat Team Leader, sent out an email looking for folks who were interested in helping care for the incoming trickle of winter bats to the center, I hit reply faster than I believed my fingers could still move.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great delight bordering on near-breathlessness that I introduce you to Dexter—I got to name him!—my charge for the winter. Forgive the less than impressive photo I’ve posted here. In photos, bats mostly look like half-melted Snickers Bars, stuck on a variety of surfaces (“Here is a photo of a Snickers Bar on a fence rail. Here is a photo of a baby Snickers Bar stuck to its mother. Here is a Snickers Bar melted to a cave wall…”)
Roberta teamed us up in volunteer pairs—one pair per bat—and Laura and I were called in last week to train for Team Dexter. Dexter is a full-grown big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), a common species here in Indiana.
Unlike with Bat Masterson, I can actually see Dexter’s face, eyes, and nose without squinting too much. He is no hulk—only about the size of a business card. Like all other Indiana bats, he is hibernating for the winter, but bat hibernation is not a rock solid sort of deal. Bats awaken from their big sleep, Roberta told us, off and on all winter. Sometimes, it’s because their roosts and crevices are disturbed. Sometimes, they move around to readjust themselves, or get nudged by another a restless cave mate. At such times, they can flop groggily onto the ground, and are often unable to muster up enough warmth and energy to fly back to safety.
That was the case with Dexter, who was found wandering around someone’s garage floor in a daze.
Animal Control brought him to WildCare, and Roberta arranged the meeting between Dexter, Laura, and me. Roberta had placed Dexter in the very warm, humid turtle room so he could get his body heat up and get his full wits about him. The waking/warming process takes up to eight hours, if a bat is winter-cold. I can relate. These cold winter days, it takes me nearly as long to wake up and get my limited wits about me.
Dexter’s temporary home is now a small aquarium with a tee-shirt draped over the side, a screen lid, tiny dishes for water and mealworms, and a cloth on the bottom so he can find traction. Roberta gently pulled aside a fold in the tee-shirt, and Laura and I began “Oooohing” immediately. I kept “ooohing,” and also said “Oh my gosh!” in a wide variety of inflections: “Ohmygosh! Oh…my…GOSH! Ohmy Gosh!!
He is beautiful. I’ve never seen such a luxurious fur—a rich, coffee color—on any animal other than a chinchilla. His ears are two whispy leaves posted on each side of his eyes. Laura and I leaned in for a closer look, and he tilted his head up and bared his fangs at us. “Ooooh, what cute teeth! Look at them! Oh, look how wide he can open that teeny mouth! Isn’t he the most DARLING, precious thing!” I gushed stupidly.
The poet Mary Oliver has a poem about how wild animals are many amazing things but they are not “cute.” I’m glad she wasn’t there.
When Roberta could finally get my attention, she explained our winter team duties.
“You’ll only wake and feed him about twice a month. We find our bats do better if we feed them during the winter. The stress of falling, transport, and handling takes a lot out of them. Feeding them a good meal every two to three weeks helps them recover the energy reserves they’ve lost.” Roberta held up a small dish full of mealworms in one hand and a set of hemostats in the other. ”You’ll need to arrange between the two of you a schedule for waking and then feeding. At that time, you’ll also clean his tank.
“Feed him like this.” Roberta smooshed a mealworm up with the hemostats, then very slowly and gently put the worm up to Dexter’s lips. “Sometimes they just won’t eat at all. Sometimes, they take right to it. Believe me, these little guys are incredibly smart. They’ll quickly get to know who you are. That’s why we keep the same team with them all winter.”
Dexter hissed, wiggled his nose, and poked out a tiny snippet of a tongue pink as bubblegum. He cautiously sampled the bug goo. He licked his lips, then reached out and grabbed at the worm on the tip of the hemostats. Roberta fed him five in under a minute. “Either of you want to try?”
I skipped forward and put a glove on my left hand, as Roberta had done, to place behind Dexter where he hung head down from the edge of the tee-shirt. Years had passed since I took aim at a mouth that small, facing upside down. I squirmed in embarrassment as my hands shook in front of Dexter’s curious face. His nose traced the wobbly gyrations of my no-longer-steady hands, and his face lunged forward, grabbing the worm. Thank God his aim was better than mine! Ear to the aquarium glass, I could hear him munching and lip-smacking as he downed more worms. Laura took a turn, and when Dexter finally quit eating, he’d managed to bolt down about forty of the little wigglers.
I’m a bit ashamed to tell you that I never stopped cooing and gushing. I’m certain Laura and Roberta would have loved to smother me with a tee-shirt or a fistful of mealworms.
Feeding day was last Monday. Wednesday when I went in to do my regular WildCare shift, I checked in on all the bats, charting whether they had eaten any worms on their own, and offering them fresh water if their dishes were empty. I peeked at several of the bats, hanging like upended, wrinkled little sages, their wings wrapped around them like the robes of Buddhist monks.
And, of course, I kept up a steady, whispered stream of blather, telling them how beautiful they were, how tender and precious and simply amazing they were, and that I would take the best care of them over the cold winter. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. We’ve got you covered. You just relax and sleep. You are safe here, I promise.”
Dexter rubbed his nose against his shoulder, deep in sleep. This winter, I have this special joy of spending time with these dark, glossy fairies. They don’t seem to have wands, but already they have touched me with some kind of magic.