October 2011: So I’m lying in hospital, on oxygen and IV antibiotics for double pneumonia, when my friend Judi walks in, carrying one of those ubiquitous green reusable grocery bags. She sits on my bed, for all the world like someone’s little old granny come to succour the sick; fishes in the bag, surreptitiously removes a small bundle and hands it to me (well out of sight of hospital staff!!) Wrapped in the bundle is the tiniest bat I’ve ever seen, peering up at me sleepily and asking if it’s feed time yet. Such is my introduction to Princess Alannah, an orphaned Black (Alecto) bat, aged 6 days. It’s love. What better motivation to get out of that hospital? 8 days later, I’m home and welcoming my new baby, all 78 grams of her.
There’s a Baby in the House
At just 2 weeks old, Alannah is like all newborns – eat, sleep and excrete! She was found near the Botanical Gardens, clinging to her mother’s body after she was electrocuted on power lines. Amazingly, the baby is unharmed although obviously distressed. The electricity company emergency crew is called to take her down from the wires, and she’s named Alannah after the girlfriend of the young man who brings her safely down and into the care of my friend Judi, aka the Bat Whisperer, who stabilises the baby and cares for her until I’m out of hospital. Now I’m responsible for her and pretty nervous about it too! Formula is measured out scientifically, tiny bottles and teats are sterilized, and towels and wraps meticulously soaked and laundered. All newborn baby stuff, except no nappies! Although, come to think of it……..
Alannah weighs just 78 grams and her forearm measurement is 64mm. (We track the babies’ growth by comparing weight and forearm measurements against a chart).
Mummy Rolls, Dummies and Airers
Initially, Alannah lives on a ‘mummy roll’ – a piece of towelling rolled into a tube to simulate her mother’s body. She’s then wrapped/swaddled snugly on the roll with another piece of towelling to mimic her mother’s wings around her. She’s either snuggled head-down on a heat pad or in a sling pinned to my chest, with her dummy firmly in her mouth. Dummy? Yup, a tiny, specially-made dummy for bats. As they can’t thermoregulate until about 4 weeks old, the bat pups spend these weeks on their mothers’ bodies for warmth, even when she flies out to feed – teeth clinging on for grim death to Mum’s nipple and claws firmly attached elsewhere on her body. So the dummy is (apart from being ultra-cute!) an essential source of comfort and security for the orphaned baby.
After about 4 weeks, Alannah has started rejecting her dummy, although she will still grab a mouthful of anything handy if startled and hang on like a bull terrier. After her early morning feed, she still likes to be tucked inside my dressing gown for a snooze. During the early dummy-dependent days, she once dropped it and latched onto my nipple instead, causing a flurry of activity and a temporary name change to “OWWWWW let-go-you-little- sh*t”!
She’s bathed and toileted every day with warm water and a face flannel, and loves this. As soon as the warm flannel hits her nether regions, excretion occurs like magic and her little wings are fully spread so as not to miss an inch. Every nook and cranny has to be dried thoroughly; otherwise a nasty fungal disease can take hold. A walk around the garden hanging off Mum in the sun each day after her bath gives her her essential dose of Vitamin D. As well as an opportunity for those flickering ears to pick up every sound, and those beady little eyes every sight that can be seen.
Soon she begins to climb around on my body, as she would on her mother’s. She mountaineers onto my head (ouch!) or around my back. Soon I’m covered in ‘bat pox’ – the tiny dings and scratches bat carers sport from those extremely sharp claws! Or she is simply content to hang on my chest by one foot (the sign of a relaxed and contented bat), checking out everything that’s going on – an intensely curious little animal. At about 6-7 weeks, she begins to invert herself to excrete and discovers that she also likes to pee on my head. Henceforth she climbs up and does this every chance she can. Kind of marking her territory, I guess – well, that’s what I tell myself and my frequently-washed hair anyway! Flapping practice begins – with her suspended from my fingers and a tummy tickle to spread those wings!
At about 4 weeks, the Princess is taken off the heat pad as she can now thermoregulate herself very nicely, thank you! Transfer begins from the mummy roll to a simple clothes airer, which is festooned with every stick and toy you can imagine – this is to encourage her to practice climbing and flapping, which she does with gusto! She is still wrapped at night for sleeping in her box beside my bed. By 6 weeks, she is living on the airer full-time except at night and when I go out, then she is put into a large cockatoo cage (equally crammed with towels, toys and sticks) to protect her from a certain cat in the house (it’s not that I don’t trust my cat, I just don’t trust my cat!)
Now she is old enough to leave behind between feeds – prior to this if I had to go out, she came with me, in her custom-designed, sheepskin-lined travel bag.
It’s amazing just where you can get away with taking a snugly-wrapped bat pup in a hippy-looking shoulder bag……supermarket (fortunately no-one ever asked for a bag check), cafe, movies (she hasn’t given me her review of ‘Red Dog’ yet)…..
At one stage I was working evenings at the local theatre, and had to take her with me for her night feeds. I was very cautious and careful about getting her out for her feed (some people don’t react well to bats) but found everyone – cast and crew – fell totally in love with her, asking all sorts of batty questions that I was more than happy to answer – she became Alannah the Education Bat for a couple of weeks!
At first, Alannah drinks cow’s milk plus added calcium and glucose from a tiny bottle and teat – 5 feeds a day every 4-5 hours. Starting at about 7 ml per feed, she’s soon up to 12, 15 and eventually 20ml per feed into the bottomless pit that is her tummy. Plus water in between. At 4-5 weeks, her weight is a podgy 153g, and her forearm growth right in line with the chart. The occasional fruit sorbet or yoghurt is ‘accidentally’ licked from Mum’s finger with evident enjoyment!
At 6 weeks, the Princess is introduced to tiny chunks of soft fruit (pear, grape). We need to be sure that she can produce ‘spats’ before moving to more fruit. A ‘spat’ is the pith and skin left after she has sucked all the pulp and juice from a piece of fruit – she will spit this out when finished. If a bat isn’t quite grownup enough to produce spats yet, we need to back off on the fruit or risk bowel blockage. Alannah obligingly produces tiny beautiful spats, and of course her proud mother had to take a photo entitled “My First Spat”, which I blessedly have not included here!
Over the next weeks, her milk intake is reduced slowly matched by an increase in fruit, which has high-protein powder sprinkled over it to keep up the protein and calcium intake. Harder fruit such as apple is introduced, and the chunks get bigger so she can learn to manage food as it will be in the wild. Fresh native blossom (the natural food for these bats) is offered every day, which she loves. Dives in head-first, sniffling and munching with the occasional sneeze as pollen gets up her nose!
Am I a Human or a Bat?
A great bond builds up between the orphan pup and the foster-mum. Like human newborns, infant bats actually need to be cuddled, talked to and played with. They like to spend as much time as possible securely hanging from their carer’s body, as they would on their mothers’. As they grow, they start to use their carer as a climbing gym, as well as the source of cuddles and tickles. They become fiercely possessive of their carers, as my poor old cat found to his cost when we were all watching telly one night and he tried to climb onto my knee. Was chased off with evil chittering noises. Cat retreated in a huff, has only recently forgiven me. Alannah loved the toys, sticks and towels in her cage and airer – her favourite toy (apart from a stuffed monkey to cling to) was a budgie bell and mirror……the damn bell would ring all night long…ding! ding! DING! Me (asleep): “mmpphhh….whassat? Smoke alarm? Fire Brigade callout? No, it’s the damn bat ringing her bell…..zzzz”. From about 7 weeks, the Terrible Twos struck. Should I pass her cage or airer without acknowledging her, I would be yelled at in no uncertain terms. And yes, bats definitely do swear. A certain guttural, clucking sound that I came to know very well whenever I did something to displease the Princess! At about 9-10 weeks, however, the Princess Teenager came into play – cuddles were OUT (except on her terms) and any liberties taken with her person were met with a sharp nip. This is as it should be, she is after all a wild creature, but it still caused private sniffling on behalf of the Mother Person.
EEK! There’s a flying Bat in the House:
All this flapping has to have a result, and sure enough, at about 12 weeks, the Princess took flight. By this time I had moved her airer into the only enclosed room in the house – the bathroom. Innocent visitors were protected by a notice on the firmly-closed door and had to wash their hands elsewhere.
The Bat Gym featured towels pegged from airer to shower rail, and gutter-guard stretched from shower rail to cupboard to encourage the novice flyer to practice. Obviously night practice was going on, bat poo was found in the oddest places. It was a military operation to get into my own shower……unpeg this, unclip that, grab quick shower and hope that intrepid traveller didn’t suddenly appear over the top of the shower curtain. First flight is almost always to the carer, so many hours were spent standing in the doorway coaxing and cajoling with mad flapping occurring at the other end until she was almost horizontal. But no take-off yet. Until, at 12 and a half weeks, she flew a few metres from her airer and crashlanded on my chest. Next morning, while I was taking a shower, she flew over the shower curtain into the shower with me……one astonished and wet bat, and one wet, screeching, naked carer!!!
Now that the Princess was flying, the bathroom became just too small. She also needed to be with other bats and to practice batly ‘stuff”. So it was back to Judi’s, who has an aviary and room for several bats. It was very hard to hand her over…..say no more.
At least I was able to still visit her, although I tried to keep it to a minimum for her sake. She adjusted very well to her new companions, although she still liked to come over for a quick cuddle when I visited – unless, of course, she smelled Other Bats on me when she would chuck a hissy fit, swear at me and pee on my head.
Finally the day comes for her to move to pre-release. Along with her 4 other hand-reared companions (Napoleon, Houdini, Milo and Rhiannon), Judi and I drive her up to the Northern Rivers area and into the care of the marvellous team there. This really is goodbye. She clings tight for a few moments, overawed by all these strange bats, then shimmies off up the wall to go meet her new friends and join the sniff-athon accorded all new bats to a colony. Somehow I manage to walk away without looking back
Fly high and free, little Princess, I am honoured to have known you.
Alannah was released to the wild on February 20 this year, 20 weeks old and weighing 448g.