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Bat Rehab

Starting with one injured bat, Amanda Lollar transformed an old furniture store into Bat World Sanctuary.

By Eileen Mattei

Like barely perceptible phantoms, fruit bats flit past Amanda Lollar in the twilight of the bat cave she has created inside a former furniture store in downtown Mineral Wells. The large, dimly lit flight cage, created from camouflage netting and artificial leaves, simulates a natural habitat for unreleasable bats that Lollar has rescued as founder, president and head chef of Bat World, a nonprofit bat rehabilitation facility and sanctuary and the world leader in bat rescue.

The bat order name, Chiroptera — hand wing — refers to the four elongated fingers with a clawed thumb that support bats’ thin wings. Texas has 32 species of bats. Their population is threatened even though bats are one of the most useful, intelligent and under-appreciated mammals in the state, Lollar says.

Early each morning, she responds to rescue calls from people who have found a bat and need advice. Then she gives medical treatments to bats temporarily housed in the Bat World hospital. Wearing a jungle print scrub top with jeans and sneakers, she tackles cleaning up after Bat World’s 150 permanent residents. These bats, either retired by zoos, confiscated from the illegal pet trade, or wild bats healed from an injury, are not releasable. Two living-room-size cages, one each for insect-eating bats and fruit eaters, hold 10 species of bats ranging from pallid and mastiff bats to the huge Egyptian fruit bat.

In the fruit bats’ enchanted forest, Lollar picks up plastic jacks and squeaky toys littering the floor and retrieves nearly empty bowls of chopped fruit and water, indicating that no bat went to bed hungry. “They eat up high, like they would in the wild. We try to make it as close to the wild as we can. Bats are curious and affectionate. At night you can hear the toy bells ringing. They love new things to investigate.” Rolling up the long strips of newsprint that protect the floor mats during the night, Lollar explains, “These bats are flying juicers.”

Crevice-dwelling and foliage-roosting bats have niches to call their own here. “I’d give anything to be one of these bats for just one night and learn their social structure. There are so many things we don’t understand about their social needs,” Lollar says as bats zip past like figments of the imagination. “I try to pretty much leave them alone and let them form their own families.” She admits, as a little leaf-nosed bat, a 12-year sanctuary resident, plucks a piece of fruit from her hands, that the bats are very spoiled.

It all started when Lollar found an injured Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) on the sidewalk in front of the furniture store she ran with her mother. Rescuing and then bonding with the tiny mammal she named Sunshine, Lollar began learning about bats and realized the public’s misconceptions about them. Always the champion of underdogs, she wrote The Bat in My Pocket to describe her transition from bat buff to sanctuary provider with the launch of Bat World in 1994.

In Bat World’s large kitchen, equipped with a king-size food processor and a pantry full of sweet potatoes, peaches and bat supplements, Lollar listens to messages on a headset while loading dirty fruit cocktail dishes into the dishwasher and sorting through mealworms before sticking them in the refrigerator. With the bats eating about 600 pounds of fruit monthly, the organization spends up to $1,000 per month on food. To keep costs down, Luther Lollar, Amanda’s father, buys fruit wholesale, and volunteers help with cutting up the apples and tropical fruit. The bats’ diets, arrived at by trial and error, appear to be nutritionally sound, because they’ve reproduced at Bat World. Males who stay are now neutered.

Insect-eating bats, which devour over 50,000 mealworms monthly, creep out of their padded roosting pouches behind fake rocks as Lollar places a tray of squirming mealworms on a shelf. She hand-feeds 25 of these “fairies of the woods,” including a big brown bat with a harem of females, a scorpion-eating pallid bat and a silky dark mastiff bat named Wendy.

Bat World hosts school field trips to introduce kids to its amazing, useful, intelligent and, yes, cute bats. The kids sit on the floor in the low light between the bat flight cages while Lollar points out that Texas bats eat lots of mosquitoes, beetles and insect pests in one night. Kids learn that bats have highly developed brains, keen senses, exquisite fur and are the only flying mammal. “Children realize they have to be quiet so they don’t stress the bats,” Lollar explains. “The bats fly low to get a look at the kids and see what is going on, attracted by soft, low noises.” The bats themselves make a squeaky noise, less high pitched and less grating than a cricket’s chirp.

Early on, Lollar learned the importance of vaccinating each bat for rabies on arrival and isolating it from others while observing it for symptoms. A bat incubating rabies shows signs rapidly, and she humanely euthanizes it. She herself has been vaccinated and gets boosters as needed.

In the small, clean Bat World hospital, where seven wild, injured or dehydrated bats are under her care, Lollar sits at a Formica-topped lab table facing compartments filled with syringes, needles, scalpels, slides, New Zealand honey, skin glue and medical tools. She wraps each injured bat in baby blue cloth as she treats it and hand-feeds it, occasionally squeezing a drop of formula onto her wrist to test the temperature. A newly arrived eastern pipistrelle bat is vaccinated, examined and wiped with an alcohol-coated cotton swab to kill fleas and mites. “He’s totally releasable, but this injured muscle has a lot of healing to do.”

The tiny hospital enables the bat lady to work on bats humanely and chart the results. When one dies, she is braced by the knowledge gained that might help save the next bat. Lollar gives Mineral Wells veterinarian Tad Jarrett much credit for his generous advice on care routines and antibiotics. “I wouldn’t have found out so much on my own. He has been so willing to participate in trying to conserve bats.”

Lollar refutes the perception that rehabilitation is not worthwhile. “Look at the ones we’ve released,” she says, with each of those bats eating half to two-thirds of its body weight in insects each night. The collected information has resulted in her books Captive Care and Medical Reference for the Rehabilitation of Insectivorous Bats (with Barbara Schmidt-French of Bat Conservation International) and Diagnostic and Treatment Update for the Rehabilitation of Insectivorous Bats. They cover everything from feeding foliage and cave-roosting orphans to administering anesthesia and diagnosing ailments like frostbite, insect stings, parasites and broken bones. “Before the first book, there was nothing, no guidelines for research,” she says. Now the books are used globally for treatment of bat diseases and injuries.

In mid-summer — bat nursery season — the Bat World hospital shelters about 200 bats, mostly orphans, in a pair of cages that cover about 10 square feet. “Bats crowd up as well as any creature, and 200 free-tail bats can fit neatly in a square foot.”

With Barbara French, Lollar tackled behavioral studies that led to discovering 25 different vocalizations used by Mexican free-tailed bats. The research resulted in a CD with the “language” of that species.

Amanda and her husband, whom she met when he e-mailed her about a bat, live upstairs from Bat World. “He understands all animal care has to be done before anything else, even shopping,” she says. Bat World’s kitchen, on the other hand, inspired her to compile Bats in the Pantry, a cookbook filled with recipes made from ingredients that bats love. Some of the ingredients include apples and peanuts (which bats protect in the wild by eating insects that destroy the crop), cocoa and mangos (bats help disperse the seeds), and avocados and bananas (bats pollinate these plants).

Wild bats roost under the eaves of the Bat World building and adjoining stores on Oak Avenue, marked by guano droppings that Lollar and her neighbors sweep up every morning. “The town has grown very supportive and protective of bats. The city doesn’t even spray for insects downtown,” she says. Given Lollar’s fierce advocacy and educational programs, Mineral Wells is definitely pro-bat, although the sight and smell of bat droppings in a downtown trying to revitalize provokes some grumblings.

Mineral Wells’ skyline is dominated by the fabulous 14-story Baker Hotel, once known for its mineral spa but now abandoned and filled with an estimated 100,000 bats. Across the street from the derelict resort, Bat World owns an 1899 sandstone building, which it uses as a wild sanctuary and nursery, sheltering a colony of 30,000 mostly Mexican free-tailed bats, who come north in the spring to give birth. The second floor’s ceiling has been removed to expose the rafters and is atwitter with bats. Despite frequent cleaning, the floor is littered with soft pebbles of guano. Unfortunately, Bat World has yet to find a market for guano.

When healthy orphans in rehab are about seven weeks old, just about ready to fly, Lollar transfers them to the wild sanctuary to hone their flight and insect-finding skills in the colony. A bat hanging apart from the others catches her attention, so she uses a long-handled net to capture it. Back at the bat hospital, she diagnoses a badly injured ear, an organ critical for foraging and flying. She injects the rabies vaccine subcutaneously and cleans the ear, murmuring, “That doesn’t feel so good, does it.” After administering an antibiotic and pain medication, she tucks the bat into a soft pouch and places it in an isolation cage.

Bat World has a small corps of volunteers and a board of directors, but the biggest help during the busy baby season comes from Bat World Boot Camp held in July. The week-long dawn to late night immersion courses in bat rehabilitation draw bat fans from the United States and Europe. Graduates have helped open 15 bat rescue centers.

“I’m so lucky to have all the help I’ve got,” Lollar says as she checks the bat drop-off box at her back door. “Even if it’s 18 hours a day, it’s not 18 frantic hours.” A few all-nighters have rewarded Lollar with glimpses into bat behavior, such as the sight of a trail of bats, none able to fly, scurrying along the flight cage wall like a trail of ants. “It looked like they were partying to me,” she acknowledges. Between other chores, she fills orders generated by the Bat Bazaar on the batworld.org Web site, sending out batty items ranging from bat t-shirts, books and calendars to totes and adopt-a-bat certificates.

“The public helps quite a bit once they learn we’re doing this. What amazes me is this started with one little bat, Sunshine.” And one dedicated, batty woman.

Details

Bat World Sanctuary
(940-325-3404, www.batworld.org)

Bat Conservation International
(512-327-9721, www.batcon.org)

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