Save the Bats

The woman who takes injured bats into her home, and the doctor who treats them

When I was a very small child, I lived in Bali for a time. My memories of nights on the island are vivid and wild, filled with strange animal sounds coiling out of jungles marked by large stone monkey temples, and sorcerer monks with long curling nails who threatened children wandering too late into sacred places. I remember twilight processions comprised of candlelight, colored silk, and the fragrance of crushed flowers so heavy it made my head swim. I remember the orchestra of crickets, frogs, and night birds that could be heard everywhere. I remember running with other children, past the village, into the bright starlit night, feeling my bare feet slap against the cooling dust, laughing wildly as we chased giant geckos and fat frogs off the road. I remember racing under trees, playing games that required no common language beyond that of childhood, and I remember the bats.

The bats always found us kids; they were drawn by the clouds of mosquitoes that were attracted to our sweaty, half-naked bodies. The bats would trail behind us in an undulating mass, ducking and diving through the inky sky, scooping great mouthfuls of bugs out of the air. Having never seen a vampire movie, or a giant flying fox (a bat indigenous to Indonesia with a wingspan of six feet), we had no cause for alarm. When, on occasion, one of the critters would suffer an in-flight collision, we would rush to the stunned creature's rescue, and wrap it up in cloth while we searched out insects to feed it. Sometimes, the injured bat would get angry, glaring and lunging at us and yapping in an indignant tone until we let it go; usually, though, the little bat would stare up at us from its swaddling, scared and quivering. After a few days, it might calm down enough to eat a cricket out of hand, smacking its tiny lips as if to say thank you as the legs disappeared down its throat.

With their wings folded, some bats resemble miniature bear cubs, tiny wolves, or furry little pigs; others have strange, flower-shaped noses and fan-shaped ears; but they all are warm-blooded, have fur, and suckle their young. Some are known to share food with hungry brethren, and to adopt orphans. In Bali, my friend had a bat that rode around in his shirt pocket and laughed.

Although I've yet to run into one on the street, there are 23 bat species native to California, 13 in the Bay Area. Among our residents is the Mexican free-tailed bat, which can fly up to two miles high to feed, or catch tailwinds and reach speeds of more than 60 miles per hour, and the pallid bat, which claims the scorpion and the centipede as delicacies. A small colony of either bat is a natural boon to farmers, ingesting several tons of insects each night. Paradoxically, bats are now endangered by the insecticides that are on and in the bugs they eat. Before man, the bat had no natural predator (numbers were controlled by low birth rate and mineral deficiencies). Now, it needs all the help it can get.

Dr. Scott Sims, D.V.M., operates a state-of-the-art equine surgery that sits on an idyllic five acres in Novato; the facility includes several stables and a fully padded knockout room outfitted with an electronic winch and self-draining floors. Sims is devoted to horses, but the Pegasus emblem that adorns the sign at the bottom of his driveway suggests his second passion: birds.

Stepping out of the morning drizzle into Sims' office, I am given a fierce looking-over by Maestro, a witty African gray parrot. Maestro hops off Sims' shoulder and tiptoes down the counter to give my lip a firm tug.

"Don't give him any fingers," warns the doctor. I follow Sims into the modest apartment attached to his front office and watch him put on his shoes. Maestro does some yoga positions and plays dead.

"I'll treat anything," Sims says, and he's not kidding. Sims even does surgery on wild bats. He may be the first vet to ever successfully repair a broken bat wing for release.

"I didn't really know anything about bats," Sims continues. "Pat just called me one day because she heard I worked on birds, and she had a bat with a broken wing." Pat is Patricia Winters, the education and rehabilitation director for the California Bat Conservation Fund, and a Novato resident who can be spotted tooling around in a white Honda Civic bearing the license plate "Bat Maam." Winters takes injured bats into her home, sometimes as many as 200 in a year, and restores them to health. With the help of Sims, even broken wings are no hindrance, even tiny broken wings.

"The smallest bat I've pinned," says Sims with no uncertain pride, "weighed 3 grams. It had a broken femur. Without my glasses, I couldn't even see the bones. The whole bat could have sat on a 50-cent piece."

Sims leads me back toward his office, and to the examination room, where two roosters await somewhat experimental de-crowing. (If it doesn't work, they're drumsticks.) Behind us, Maestro meows like a cat. (The bird will call Sims from the other room in the voice of his mother, his father, his receptionist, or his best friend.) As planned, Liz Cook from Sacramento Wildlife Carearrives with a small plastic container holding a female Mexican free-tailed bat that had a compound fracture five weeks before. The bat wakes slowly, stumbling around the white countertop on her folded wings, blinking in the bright light. (Bats are not blind.) Sims looks her over.

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