Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I'm not good for much today but burning trash and doing laundry, of which there's always a lot. A lot has happened since my last post thanking everyone who donated to the Zick Health Fund. This whole bat experience has been like riding the Wild Mouse, with sudden jags left, right and backward. I'll be honest: having it unfold publicly has been painful. There are many things I'd rather do than tell this story to thousands of people. But doing what I most long to: suddenly going offline, crawling in bed and pulling the covers over my head for oh, say a week-- isn't an option either, especially when my readers are offering up their good wishes, love and support.
So here's what happened. On February 13, I took in another bat from the same living room where Dee Dee was found. It was a male, smaller and more delicate than Dee Dee. He looked and acted healthy, except for a large swelling on the right side of his face that involved his cheek and ear and almost closed his eye. It looked like a bite, perhaps, something that isn't unexpected in a bat colony. It scabbed over and healed, but the ear was permanently damaged. In this photo, taken March 28, 2010, you can see that there's a big chunk missing from the lower border of Darryl's ear, and his tragus is shrunken to just a little nubbin in the lower ear.
In the photo below, you can appreciate his good ear. The tragus is the little fingerlike projection in the lower outer ear. The tragus and all the delicate ridges and folds of the bat ear help channel ultrasonic pulses to the inner ear where they need to go. Like all wild things, a bat must be virtually perfect in order to survive in the outdoors. That's a lesson that wildlife rehabilitators, me especially, have to learn again and again. You might recall Avis, the hand-raised eastern phoebe who didn't make it. I sure do.
I didn't find out until yesterday at the Ohio Wildlife Center that a damaged ear renders a bat, which forages and gets about using echolocation, permanently unreleasable. So hold onto that thought, bummer that it is, because it will help with what comes next.
I put Darryl in with Dee Dee and they got along great. It was so nice to know they could be together, to wait out the rest of the winter. I had visions of releasing them together. I had visions of bat children, especially when I saw the towels rocking rhythmically the first night they were together. That's bats for you. They're the sexy little beasts.
Some bats in captivity feed themselves out of dishes from the get-go, like Dee Dee.
And some, for reasons unknown, never get the hang of crawling down to their dishes for food and water. After about five days it became apparent that Darryl wasn't eating --he became torpid and unresponsive. Once I got his little engines up and running again, I tried to teach him to self-feed, with little success. He reached out and grabbed a couple of worms on his own, but he clearly preferred catered meals. We went to school, but Darryl decided not to graduate.
So I finally gave up and began feeding him by hand, something we both enjoyed. I really dug communing with Darryl every afternoon. I had to feed him before it got dark, because he got really jiggy then, being a bat and all. Uppity. Squirmy and snarly.
photo by Shila Wilson.
Bats are messy eaters. They make a lot of noise crunching down their mealworms, and mealworm heads and tails fall from their tiny jaws. They're also messy drinkers.
Because Liam loves to get in and help, and because he adored the bats, for several evenings I let him help me feed Darryl from the end of a long bent tweezers. He never touched or handled Darryl; he just fed one mealworm after another into that little mouth while I held the bat, and he was really good at it, better than I was. He could get them lined up just right and knew just when to release the tweezers.
photo by Shila Wilson
Along about St. Patrick's Day, Darryl spluttered while I was giving him water out of a dropper, and a droplet of water landed on Liam's cheek. At the time, I quizzed him sternly on where the water had gone, checked for any abrasions, began to worry, and the more I thought about it, and the more I learned about bats and viruses, the more troubled I became. Liam said that only one droplet landed on his cheek, and nothing went in his mouth or eyes (he wears glasses). We needed to be sure that none of Darryl's saliva contacted a mucous membrane. But we couldn't be sure. We could never be sure. Maybe there was a tiny droplet. And maybe Darryl was carrying rabies. And I didn't sleep much from then on. I'd look in the mirror in the bleary mornings, and I couldn't recognize myself. Even my hair was different--sticking up and out in all directions. Who is this puffy haint, staring back at me with red-rimmed eyes?
I thought that quickly getting both me and Liam pre-exposure rabies vaccinations would protect us, so I moved rapidly down that path. I asked you for help, and you responded magnificently. But that turned out to be a blind avenue. I am very grateful to virologist Tim Winship and faithful friend and veterinarian KatDoc "I hesitate to ask this, but why..." for gently helping me understand what I really needed to do. In a situation like this, friends like Tim and Kathi are beyond value. What happened to Liam constituted a potential exposure to rabies virus, so he would need post-exposure shots (much more expensive and involved than pre-exposure vaccinations) should Darryl test positive for the rabies virus. Oh, dear. Oh, no. And by the way, so would I. At that point, I was well past caring about me. I'd gotten us into this terrible mess; I deserved whatever awful thing happened. I could only think of my little boy.
I couldn't put our sweet Liam through those shots needlessly. They can be painful, and they're terribly expensive ($12,000). Problem: You can't test a live animal for rabies. You have to look at its brain tissue for the virus.
I will condense the heartache, worry and agonizing process of coming to the decision to euthanize and test Darryl so we'd know for sure if those post-exposure shots were necessary into two words: pure hell. When the Lord handed out reverence for small lives, he dumped the whole bucket into my heart. As my dad always said, "You've got your priorities backwards." Being built backward, it took me a weekend to get my priorities straightened out, and take this little animal I dearly loved to Columbus to be put down and tested for rabies.
If the bat tested negative, Liam wouldn't have to get ANY shots. If Darryl was rabies positive, well, we'd cross that bridge when we came to it, because we'd have to figure out who else might have had even a trivial exposure. Bill, Phoebe, me, Liam; others in Bill's family, all of us perhaps slated for post-exposure prophylaxis at $12,000 a pop. Can you take a chance that you didn't somehow inhale something as you were peering at the cute little bat you didn't know was rabid? Rabies is unforgiving, unequivocally fatal. I couldn't sit around with my head in my hands. I had to act, and act fast.
So on Monday, March 29 I packed up Dee Dee and Darryl and a sharp-shinned hawk who couldn't fly and drove my odd little ark to Columbus, to the Ohio Wildlife Center, to have Dee Dee and the hawk taken into their capable care. They also did me the service of putting Darryl down.
I sat in the OWC's tiny reception area for the better part of an hour, desolate, and watched through tears as a parade of citizens came through with animals and birds, to be met by kind volunteers and staff. A couple with a road-killed red-tailed hawk. Too beautiful to leave on the highway, I guess. Another couple with a fox squirrel contained in a trash can, its hind legs dragging behind it. Too sad to leave crawling about under the feeder. A nice woman with a hopeful smile and a wingless, tailless cardinal that she'd doubtless pulled out of a cat's jaws when it already constituted a meal. Too dreadful to leave to the cat to finish. A couple of raccoons bundled in towels. Who knows what their story was. I was staggered by the seemingly endless supply of sad cases and nice hopeful people, by the kindness of the OWC staff and volunteers. I was hit hard by the reality that I, with my two bats and my grounded sharp-shinned hawk, was just one of far too many desperately needing their immediate, free help.
I am so very grateful that OWC exists and cares and works around the clock to try to get some good out of all the sad carnage people, their machines and their pets visit on wild animals. They've taken in and cared for over 36,000 creatures since 1984. The Ohio Wildlife Center is 2 1/2 hours away from me, but it is my closest and only option when a creature needs surgery or I need expert advice on its care. I have leaned on them too many times.
Director of Animal Care, Lisa Fosco, looked at Darryl's ear and matter-of-factly declared that with impaired echolocation abilities, he'd be unreleasable anyway, which made me feel just a little bit better about the decision I'd had to make. She left the room and after awhile came back with a little Ziploc bag with Darryl wrapped in paper towels inside it. I filled out a possible rabies exposure report form, put it in the bag, and drove it to the Columbus Department of Health's laboratory outside Reynoldsburg. As I circled around the compound of imposing brick structures, I saw a man with a cattle car and asked him if he knew where the rabies lab might be. He opened the trailer door, revealing a dead cow, and said, "I hope this is it, because I gotta get this cow tested for rabies." Eep, eep, eep.
Cows, I understand, come down with rabies more than you'd think because when they see an animal in distress, say a bat crawling through the grass, they get curious and often sniff or lick it, getting bitten in the process. Bless their hearts.
Reeling a little from that encounter, I drove away and finally found a promising looking door. I rang the buzzer and a thin man appeared and led me, still carrying my little bag, to a lab covered with biohazard signs. The heavy steel door opened and a very large man with latex gloves, a shaved head and a black goatee nodded and took my little bag. "Got a bat there?" He told me that if all went well I'd hear from him the following afternoon. Which is today, as I'm writing this, the phone inches from my hand. I've tried, but I can't do anything else but write this and wait for the phone to ring.
And it just did. Darryl's test came back negative for rabies.
Good night, sweet leather-winged boy. I will hold my Liam all the closer for having loved you.
This afternoon, I start my pre-exposure vaccinations, because fools like me need more than angels, virologists and veterinarians to look after them.