Thursday, January 5, 2012

Harry the Big Brown Bat

*Disclaimer - I am not an expert in wildlife rehabilitation, nor bats, but worked under the supervision of someone who was. Please don't use this as a guide of what to do if you find a bat. Please contact someone in your area who is licensed for wildlife rehabilitation before approaching the animal. There is no test for rabies in a live animal or human. If you are bitten or scratched by a rabies vector species (bats, raccoons, etc.) the only way to be sure that you have not gotten rabies is to have the animal killed and have their body tested. It is much less traumatic to all involved to not approach the animal until you've contacted the proper authorities.*

(Warning... this ends in a cliffhanger with no answer, only hope.)

Four days ago while working in our garage on a lazy Sunday, I happened upon a small bat laying in the bottom of a large empty pot that last summer had held a tomato plant. I moved the pot slightly to see if the bat was alive and the bat made the slightest movement, just enough to let me know not to throw him out!

I covered the pot with a tubtrug and immediately emailed the incomparable Julie Zickefoose, for advice. Julie rehabilitated two bats a couple years ago, and detailed the experience on her blog. I was careful not to approach the bat because of worries about rabies or other diseases it could be carrying, in addition to not wanting to hurt or stress it further. Julie was gracious enough to walk me through step by step everything I should do to help the bat.

I prepared a plastic critter container that once held a leopard gecko as I brought her home from the pet store. I lined it with a terry cloth towel, got a small syringe to offer water, and tweezers to offer mealworms. I donned thick gardening gloves, long sleeves, eye, nose, and mouth protection, and very gently picked up the bat. The bat's tiny claws grabbed onto my glove during the brief transfer to the new "bat house" and I was able to check the bat's underside. Congratulations, it's a boy! I named him Harry because I found him in a pot (Harry... Pot-ter... ba-dum bum).

Do you remember the movie Ferngully, and the bat named Batty? "I have but one claw... but BEWARE!"

I spent a futile 5 minutes trying to make him drink or eat, but he was not having it. In Julie's words, "Hibernation's like that."

He was safe in his padded new habitat, and I turned off the garage lights so he could get some sleep. The next morning, I found him hanging upside down like the bats you see hanging in caves. I took this as a very good sign that he was performing instinctive behaviors, instead of just laying flat like when I found him. I left some mealworms in case he decided he was hungry during the day.

I could not wait to get home that night to see how he was doing. He was much more active than the day before, and drank several cc's of water from a dropper (not all of it went into his mouth, but alot of it did!). He still did not seem interested in the mealworms, so I left some in his container and went to bed. The mealworms were still there as I left for work Wednesday morning.

Wednesday's high was 21 degrees, and our garage is attached to our house, but unheated, so I fully expected him to still be in a state of torpor when I got home. Boy, was I wrong! He was bright, alert, and when I approched, making the chattering noises Julie told me about. I took the lid off of the container and to my surprise, the mealworms had been replaced with droppings!

I was so excited to see that his digestive tract was working well that I ran to get more mealworms to see if he would eat again. And did he eat! I offered one mealworm from tweezers and without bothering to sniff or check it out, he immediately grabbed it in his jaws and munched away as if he hadn't eaten all winter. I gave him a couple more and he ate those just as fast. After about 10 minutes, he had eaten at least 2 dozen mealworms!

I didn't want to take a chance of overfeeding and making him sick, so I stopped, and now that he was eating and drinking well, I felt comfortable with releasing him. Thursday was supposed to be a sunny, mild day with a high in the 40's, and I had the day off.


My sister Annie wanted to come up to meet Harry and help with his release. We took some pictures while we were still in the garage that Harry had called home for the past four days, and offered some mealworms and water to see if he was hungry or thirsty, which he was not.


He started moving around somewhat, and by 11am the temperatures had risen above freezing so we decided it was a good time to release him. I was worried that driving somewhere with him would warm him up too much, and get his brain going enough to find a way to escape into the car, so we decided to release him under the deck behind my house. We looked all around to find a guarded place that was still open enough for him to get out when he was ready. We decided that Annie would be the one to put him up in the release spot so that I could photograph the event.

During the process of all of this happening, our "neighborhood" cat, Panda Kitty, came running up from the woods to come visit us. He's the sweetest cat I've ever met (even though he's an "outside" cat, and I'm much more of a dog-person than a cat-person) and he just wants to be loved. He and Benji are best friends and the cat is not afraid of much.

Annie giving Panda Kitty some loving.

In attempt to get our attention, Panda crawled part way up the deck post we were working on to say Hi. This made me worried that he was going to try going after Harry, but he didn't seem at all interested in Harry or the critter container that once housed Harry, and my mind was much more concentrated on the task at hand. Panda crawled down and went over to sit on the air conditioner and groom himself.  There are raccoon baffles on 7 of 8 deck posts that are along the edge of our deck, but the 8th one is right up against the house, so there's not room to wrap one all around the post. The raccoons haven't figured this out, so it hasn't bothered me much, we only get the occasional squirrel checking out the bird feeders and Panda Kitty looking for love up on the deck. He got tired of us not petting him, and crawled up the 8th post by the house to wait up on the deck for Benji to come out and see him.

Panda Kitty sitting on the hot tub cover on the deck.

The post where Harry was going was in the center under the deck, so it didn't have a baffle, but an animal crawling up it wouldn't lead them to the floor of the deck, so I've never worried about it before today.

It took several attempts of us perched upon cinderblocks to get high enough to get Harry up into his roost and get all of his claws detached from the glove at the same time. For a while we thought we might have to just leave the glove.

He finally released himself, but kept trying to crawl back out. One time, he fell to the ground after bouncing off of three hands attempting to catch him on his way down. He seemed stunned but unhurt. We loved on him a bit, then put him back up.

Take two

He continued to try to escape by crawling but not flying. We stretched out his wings a bit to make sure they were okay, and we didn't see any tears, bleeding, or anything that appeared un-bat-like. This time we got smart, and rather than trying to get him to release from the glove while up in his roost, we detached him from the glove down by the ground onto a 2 inch diameter stick.

It looks like he's smiling.

The stick fit easily into the hole and we pushed it up enough until it was wedged and it partially blocked the bottom opening enough to help keep him from falling back out but didn't block the top opening so he could still get out later in the evening when it got dark.

We took a few more pictures, and he appeared to be perched upside-down in his spot nicely. We decided to leave him alone for a while and let the sleepy little guy have some private time. We came back inside, washed our hands, and greeted our two very excited dogs :)

We went out onto the deck to enjoy the sun, play with Panda Kitty, and let the dogs eat the melting snow while they checked the yard for intruding deer and squirrels. The dogs played a bit and Panda Kitty enjoyed getting some affection in the sunshine. The dogs wanted to go back inside, so Annie and I made lunch and loaded Harry's pictures onto the computer and proceeded to oooh and aaah at his cuteness some more.

After eating, we wanted to go check on our baby and see him roosting and hibernating in his new "crib." We put our layers of warmth back on and the bat paparazzi traipsed back out into the cold half-melted yuckiness to annoy Harry one more time before fully leaving him to Mother Nature's care. We called to him as we walked up (as if we expected him to call back). I crawled up onto the cinderblock we used earlier and looked excitedly into the cavity, only to find it empty. The sticks we used to lift Harry into his roost were still wedged just as we had left them. We thought perhaps he had shifted positions to the other side of his roost. Nope, not there either. Not anywhere to be found. We looked everywhere on the underside of the deck, even getting a flashlight to check the very small dark nooks. No Harry. Our hearts sank as we hit our knees to delicately search the ground where we had just been standing. Annie commented rhetorically "Harry, this would be much easier if you were not brown." There is a wood pile 4 feet from the post where his roost was, and some stray wood pieces all around the ground under him. We gingerly lifted each piece hoping to see hair or hear chattering, but with each piece moved, hope of finding him grew more and more dim.

After having looked under every last piece of wood that was on the ground and carefully searching through the dead weeds, we decided that it was up to Mother Nature to care for Harry now, whatever had happened to him. The wonderful thing about Mother Nature is that she provides amazing camouflage, and there is a chance that he was somewhere within 10 feet of us hanging out and laughing internally at the crazy primates scouring the frozen ground for him. He was never ours to begin with, he was only entrusted to our care for a few days. Of course, there is also the chance that he was found by Panda Kitty and carried off to places unknown. We did what we could do, but this is an excellent lesson in choices and consequences. No matter how many "good deeds" Annie and I could have done for this bat, there is still the chance that our neighbor's choice to have an "outside" cat could have derailed our efforts. When you choose to have a pet, you must also choose to take care of it, which includes keeping your pet contained, whether it's a lizard in an aquarium, a dog on a leash, or a cat kept inside a house. There are entire websites and facebook pages devoted to keeping cats indoors.

I choose to stay positive about my time with Harry, knowing that I did the best I could have done for him. If I kept him any longer, he may have become reliant on me, had his hibernation cycle and metabolism disrupted, and could have been injured in the small container I had him in. I choose to remain positive and think that on the next warm evening that comes around, he will be out in my yard clearing it of insects who have taken flight that day, too.