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 Care arrives 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.
"She's a tub," he says, laughing and putting the mouse-sized face in a plastic sandwich bag attached to an anesthesia tank. "She'll never get off the ground with that weight. Eating must be good over at Wildlife Care." The little bat struggles, until her eyes close and her mottled belly rises and falls with deep breaths. She looks like a little bear. Sims spreads her wing.
"All the same bones as in the human hand," he says, looking over the leathery expanse with admiration. He places the small bat on a mammography machine and takes some much-magnified X-rays. The break is healing well, but Sims wants to wait before he removes the pin. Back in her carrying case, the little bat wakes slowly and hides herself between the folds of a towel.
"Some bats are shy, some are not," Patricia Winters says inside her cozy, one-room apartment on the top floor of a big white barn on Morningstar Farms. Clean, warm, bright, and sunny, Winters' apartment is the unlikely home of no fewer than 20 bats on any given day. Aside from the constant chirping of crickets and several rows of nondescript plastic cases covered in cloth baby diapers, you might never know.
As a child, Winters rescued a baby bat from a flea market in Riverside. It lived only a few years, but in that time it became an irreplaceable member of Winters' family. Years later, at the age of 46, Winters heard a lecture by bat expert Elizabeth Pearson. Winters volunteered and began working with Pearson in the field, eventually returning to school for her degree and a full-time job as an educator and rehabilitator.
Winters opens one of many large plastic boxes and pulls out Wolfman Jack, a nut-brown pallid bat with one wing shorter than the other.
"Wolfy can't fly," says Winters, holding the petite bat in her hand, "but he's talkative and happy." As if on command, Wolfy starts chortling and settles down to a smile that reveals two rows of tiny, pointed teeth. Winters offers Wolfy a cricket, which he contentedly munches while we talk. Pallid bats hunt on the ground, where they can be stomped by horses; they often land on people's porches to get out of the wind and are beaten with brooms. Wolfman Jack came in with a badly crushed and infected wing. Rather than amputate completely, Sims was able to save most of the wing above the wrist. Now, the 12-year-old male is an education bat. Winters tickles his feet, and Wolfy laughs, his big ears wobbling. Wolfy has a crush on Jennifer, but Jennifer, a hand-raised premature baby, is a bit stuck on herself: She flirts with Wolfy only to get his crickets, then storms off on her little wings. Recently, while on the set of The X-Files (along with 13 of Winters' other bats), Jennifer had refused to hang from the rafters, preferring, instead, to land on the face of the "scientist" body double to beg for cookies. Old habits die hard.
Winters wakes the matron Princess Tiffany, a velvety brown long-eared myotis who has been in the family for 13 years. Tiffany recently retired from the school circuit. Cream Puff, a silvery, slightly arthritic hoary bat, has also happily retired, but not before a scene-stealing performance on The X-Files.
"She was the only bat that stayed on her mark," laughs Winters. "As Jen was being peeled off the double's face, Cream Puff was just sitting there, good as could be."
I peer into a newly constructed flight cage in the corner of the clean, bright living room and just make out the shape of a small bat hanging upside down in the gloom. Until recently, there was no flight cage here, and the recovering bats had full range. While most of Winters' live-in characters -- those bats who appear in school lectures and in the rare television spot -- cannot fly for one reason or another, during the course of a year, Winters takes in, rehabilitates, and releases as many as 200 bats. This year, she released at least 50 infants back into the wild. High season in this apartment, before the flight cage, must have been outlandish.
"Yeah, I got a little tired of them strafing my potato salad," laughs Winters, who, aside from her penchant for bat-motif jewelry, appears to lead a pretty normal life with her furry companions. At least during daylight hours.
"If bats get fed regularly," explained Liz Cook, "they don't really care about flying much. As long as they have food, they're happy."
"I go through 20,000 mealworms and 2,000 crickets per month," assures Winters. "They like their mealworms." Jennifer finishes one off and licks her lips with an appreciative smack.
"They like their mealworms."