Thursday, May 31, 2012
My spring obligations began to close in, and I was trying to see into the future and predict when the batgirls might be ready for release. I understood from Rob Mies and Lisa Fosco that bats should be able to fly continuously for ten minutes in an enclosed space to be considered releasable. I watched my girls flutter languidly from one perch to the next and wondered if they’d ever get there. But they still had weight to lose, so I worked them and kept their rations slim (12 mealworms each day) and kept hope alive. What I didn’t want to do was to have to send them to the Ohio Wildlife Center for safekeeping while we were in Alaska from May 14-21. I desperately wanted to release them before I left. I knew from past experience that the stress of transport and of being in a new environment, which would likely be much less bat-friendly than our quiet garage with its spacious flight tent, might throw them off their feed and cause them to go back into torpor. These bats knew me and were comfortable with being handled by me. Heck, sometimes I had a hard time getting them to fly--they liked hanging out on my gloved hand. I liked it, too. But oh, I wanted them to go free.
The other wall facing me was the possibility that one or both of these girls was pregnant. Big brown bats mate in the fall and delay implantation of the fertilized egg until conditions are right. They deliver their young—one or sometimes twins—from mid-May through June in Ohio. What I did not want was more bats to worry about.
Lisa Fosco learned that through hard experience, when bats would deliver babies while still in captivity. She said she released a female bat with a young baby clinging to her only to see the baby fall to the ground, its newly released mother vanishing into the sky. Ack ack ack. The only alternative to prevent such a boondoggle, she said, is to keep the mother and baby together in confinement until the baby is flying and completely independent. My mind boggled at the prospect. How many more months would that be? How could I provide adequate nutrition for a lactating mother bat, and how could the baby bat learn to forage in a flight tent? No, no, no, no. These bats had to go and find a maternity roost before they delivered their young. I felt like Indiana Jones in the vault with all four walls closing in.
On the evening of May 1 I went out to fly the girls and found a small red wad on the towel beneath the bats’ roost. I knew what it had to be before I picked it up. It wasn’t a wad, it was a being: a fetus, about half developed, its tiny wings wrapped around it, each minuscule toe perfectly formed, its face dished like that of a puppy, its eyes just dark spots between the clear fetal skin.
I turned it over and over, unfolded its wings and worked its tiny feet. It would have been a boy. I studied the quiet bats. Stella hung alone in the corner, not cuddled up to Mirabel as usual. Gently I picked her up and found the birth blood on her. I fed her all the mealworms she wanted and gave her a dropper of water, apologizing to her for failing to get her out to a maternity roost where she could deliver in safety. I didn’t fly her for the next two days. By the next morning she’d passed the afterbirth.
Looking at her baby's perfect spine reminded me of the early sonograms of our kids, just notions in the womb, but already adorned with a string of vertebral pearls.
Oh, so very sad to know this one would never fly.
There was a bright spot in the sadness. Both bats, by May 2, were down to 20 gm, which was finally in the normal range. Yet they were still not showing sustained flight. My hands were tied. I felt the pressure of time once again. My heart ached to see the girls fly free.
Most of all, I ached for Stella and her lost baby. I wept for him and for her. I hoped that I could do better by Mirabel, hoped that part of her stubborn weight was a little fetus hanging in there, waiting for her to find the right old attic in Marietta where it could come into the world as nature intended.
I knew we were on the road to release, knew all these bats needed was a little more time. And time was the one thing I didn't have.