Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bat Reach (Pluto the Squirrel Glider)

The day after I went to the Great Barrier Reef was the day I was to move from the hostel to Bat Reach. Bat Reach was situated in a small town called Kurana, a little under an hour from Cairns to the West. I was told that the bus was the best way to get there. The front desk attendants at the hostel said that the bus stop was directly behind the mall, and the best way to get there was to walk through the mall. Check out time at the hostel was 9:00am, but the bus wouldnt arrive to Cairns until 11:30am. So, I left the hostel at 9:00, after my free pancake breakfast of course, and went over to find the bus stop. It didn't take long before I was hungry again and bored. However, there was no way I was going to drag my bags all through the mall. It was steaming with humidity outside which just made me want to leave my spot that much more. There was one man working at the train station adjacent to the bus stop. I went up to him, dragging the luggage behind me, and asked if I could possibly keep them out of view in the station for a few minutes while I ran into the mall for food. He said that someone might think a "terrorist" left them and he didn't want to deal with that whole mess today. (Apparently these false alarms had happened before?) Instead, he let me slide the luggage into a locked closet while I shopped. I thanked him and ran into the mall.

The first thing I came to was a $2 bin of clearance books. On top of the bin was a book about beauty based selection in the animal kingdom and how that affects the Darwinian theory of evolution. Well, of course I had to have something to read for the remainer of my wait. I bought the book and headed over to the food court. I was still craving tuna sushi from the previous day. The very first food court restaurant had that exact thing. I grabbed a container of six along with a coke and went back to get my stuff.

The wait was much less of a hassle with a craving satisfied, caffeine in my system, a good book to read, and large bags to prop my feet up on. I was almost disappointed when the bus arrived. Thankfully, the colorful animal pictures and giant "Kurana - village in the rainforest" writings let me know I was definately getting on the correct bus. There was no storage under the bus, so I had to lift the bags up, and then scoot them to a handicap seat, facing the middle. 

Kurana is high in the hills of the rainforest. The roads twist and turn, reminding me of West Virgina. The bus driver also reminded me of West Virginia, as he drove the fastest speed he could without us tumbling down the hillside. My right arm recieved a great workout by holding onto the bags to keep them from slipping or falling over each turn every other second. I think this distracted me enough to keep me from becoming car sick.

The town seemed specialized for tourists who wanted a day trip into a rainforest. It was packed full of souvenir shops and expensive animal experience areas. Pam, the owner of Bat Reach, had told me to just ask around town for directions to Bat Reach once I got there. I felt a little odd asking random strangers, so I found an information booth instead. The lady there said "go down the street, behind the fire station, and down the hill." She said I'd see a sign for it when I got there. I managed to find the hill easily enough. There was a tall fence along the side of the pathway. A few houses down was a sign for Bat Reach hanging on a gate, but it said closed and nobody was around. I sat my bags there and went a bit father down the path, but didn't spot any more signs. 

My phone had already died. I was too tired the night before to think to charge it. Since Jenny (from Tolga Bat Hospital) had given me Pam's number, I still had the piece of paper it was written on. The first people to walk down the path after me were a young Australian couple. I asked if I could borrow a phone to make a very quick call. The guy handed over his smartphone, and waited as I made the call. Ring... Ring... "Hello" "Hi Pam" "This is Erika" I fumbled an apology and began to hang up as Erika quickly explained that she was a volunteer for Pam. The number was correct. I explained where I was and she popped out of a house at the very end of the path to come get me. I returned the phone to the very kind strangers and hauled my luggage the rest of the way downhill. 

It turns out that Bat Reach is always closed, as it is a private residence with cages built on the property. Most rehabilitation places in Australia are like that. If desired, people can schedule a visit to see all of the animals in care and learn more about them. 

Erika led me up a long set of stairs leading to the deck, inside the house, and another set of stairs (actually more like a ladder) to the loft, where our bunk beds were. I was so happy to have Erika's help with the bags! Otherwise, I probably would have just left them outside. The deck was rather high up and had a dining table under a nice tin roof. It was apparently great for bird watching, though my eyesight would only occasionally offer a bird shaped color blob. Inside the two glass sliding doors the house appeared to be a cabin. The windows were more like blinds made out of glass, opened to let air flow through the house. Pam, the owner, stayed in the only bedroom downstairs. Erika and I stayed in the loft which was filled with two bunk beds, two night stands, and many short bookshelves. 

Two small dogs greeted us inside the house. The first was a male jack russell terrier named Tori. He liked to lick peoples faces by lunging his tongue straight for their mouth. The second dog was Lulu, a cream colored long hair chihuahua. She did not like to be touched around her legs, but insisted to be lifted up onto the couch anytime anyone sat down.

Erika was French, but grew up in the Canary Islands. Because of that she was fluent in three languages. When we first met, she described herself as a nudist hippy. She had already traveled to several countries to rehabilitate animals. She spoke mostly of her experiences with wolves, sharks, and seals. Erika had already been at Bat Reach for a month and was planning to stay for many more months. She had convinced Pam to let her care for an orphaned pinkie swamp wallaby during her time there. She also was caring for an orphaned spectacled flying fox. Out of everyone I have met so far in Australia, I got along with her the best. This may be because she didn't use unfamiliar slang and understood that I was not up for conversation before the afternoon, especially without caffeine.

Pam's car pulled into the drive way as I got settled into the loft. Pam was an elderly women. She communicated primarily with moans and hums. This took a while to learn. I would say, "Pam, did you give the gliders worms today?" She'd reply a low "Mmm". I would clarify, "Is that a yes or no?" "Hmm" she'd answer in a slightly higher pitch. Eventually, I figured out the differences. Moans were usually negative, while hums were usually positive. Pam watched the news every single morning and evening, even though she didn't seem to ever like watching it. I enjoyed watching the news since it had been a while since I last was able to do so. 

My first day or two at Bat Reach I was close to useless. The plane, hostel, and full day of swimming had exhausted me! I spent that time learning how to do everything from Erika. Each morning Erika and Pam would be bright eyed and awake by 7:00am. Pam would watch the news while Erika would feed her two orphans. I would open my eyes, try to focus on something to keep them open, pull off the covers, and so on, until I could finally reach the downstairs around 8:00am. I never got a full nights sleep, so this process never became easier. How Erika remained happy every morning despite round-the-clock orphan feeding is a compete mystery to me. 

Once I was awake, the orphans were fed, and the news was starting to repeat itself, we would head outside to begin work. Behind Pam's house were two large dog kennel like chain link and open mesh cages. One was for males while the other was for females. There were wild bats outside of the cages too, probably holding out for some free food. Around the side of the house were more outdoor covered cages. The first contained a couple older orphaned flying foxes. The next three contained sugar gliders. A "chook pen" (chook=chicken) was built into the side of the house as the path led down to the garage. Within the garage were isolated fruitbats, sugar gliders, and a squirrel glider. 

The lady fruit bats (and some wild bats outside of the cage.)

The gentlemen fruit bats

Two small glider cages, with a wild turkey on top, and one large glider cage.

Fruit bat isolation cage (There were many more cages in the garage. This was just the only one I took a picture of because the lighting wasn't good enough.)

Before I go any further I should probably explain the animals just a bit. Australian bats are separated into two groups: the megabats (fruit eating) and the microbats (insect eating). There are four species of megabats which are flying foxes. So all flying foxes are fruit bats, but not all fruit bats are flying foxes. Gliders at a rehabilitation center may also cause confusion. Gliders are a marsupial that can be kept as pets in America. However, they are wild, native animals in this region of Australia. Most Australians I've met are pretty against the fact that their wild animals are our pets. (Most popular birds and reptiles are also Australian.) Australians are not allowed to keep many of these animals as pets, so it seems wrong to them that we do. 

Erika and Pam usually rotated cleaning the large bat cages. I did all of the other smaller cages along the side of the house and into the garage. Since all of the animals at Bat Reach were nocturnal, we only needed to clean in the morning and feed at night. The cages were simple enough to clean. Remove buckets/dishes, refill water, replace newspaper, and sweep up any additional messes. There were around ten separate cages to clean. Glider bedding was changed once a week or when it became dirty. Once the large cages had been finished, I would collect the buckets, numbering twenty or so, and wash them out thoroughly. If Erika wasn't doing the large bat cages, she helped with cleaning the small cages. I spent most of my time, at first, out back and in the garage with the gliders when I wasn't trying to catch up on sleep. It was difficult getting good pictures of them since they hid and slept all day.

All morning tasks were completed by noon at the latest. Pam would often use this time to go pick up fruit. The twenty buckets had to be filled to the top with chopped fruit for the bats to eat, and Pam only gave them the best. Several local grocery stores donated extra produce each week. While Pam was away, I slept. When she returned Erika and I would help unload her car, sort through the produce, and bring the best of it upstairs. 

At 4:00pm every day volunteers would begin to arrive. There were usually one to four volunteers, nearly all were middle-age to elderly women who were close friends with Pam. We would set out buckets, cutting boards, knifes, and a trash bin along the bench (kitchen counter top), and everyone would begin cutting fruit. It often took just over an hour to fill every bucket. A vitamin powder and fruit juice was poured on top before serving it to hungry bats.

The buckets were hung up on metal hooks attached to the top of each cage. Some impatient bats, like the two in the above picture, would begin eating before the buckets could be hung. All bats ate upside down, using their thumbs and mouth to keep ahold of the food. Bananas were donated most often, so they got sick of them quickly.

Sugar gliders were fed next. They got plates of food fit for a king. Each dish contained various nuts and oats, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, corn, etc. Honey would be drizzled on top for an extra treat. Chickens got a mix of leftovers from the gliders. 

Usually Pam would sit on the porch with her evening volunteers, socialize, smoke, and drink wine as the sun went down. Sometimes they would have dinner with us all outside. Eventually, the volunteers would leave and the evening news would come on. This tv was almost entirely used for the news. I tried to watch Mythbusters on it one afternoon and she made me turn it off. At 8:00pm, it was time to feed the microbats. Microbats were kept in an office/storage room near the back of the house. There were three of them. They were all unreleasables and had to be hand-fed. One (Simba) had been in care for over ten years with a severely misshapen wing. Simba was the only microbat who was willing to eat for me, so I always fed him. (All of the animals had names, but I had a hard time remembering most of them.) I kept forgetting to take pictures of the microbats, so unfortunately you'll all have to use you imagination on this one.

The night was noisey. The bat cages were right outside of my window. Apparently I was the only one who heard them most nights, but I believe that is just because everyone else was used to the noise by then. I was told that it was nearing the end of breeding season where the males scream all night long, trying to get the ladies. If you would like to replicate the sound of fruit bats at home for reference I suggest you do the following: Put a crying baby next to a toddler. Have the toddler yell into a microphone rhythmically. Give them buckets and chains to crawl over and bang on. Try to sleep in the same room. Erika had to get up every three hours to feed Fiona, the wallaby and Kit, the bat. She needed to turn the lights on every time to get down the stairs and warm up formula. Add in the factor that I am a natural night owl that has to force myself to go to sleep by a decent time normally. I'm positive I looked like I slept all of the time, but it was more like I was always trying to catch up on the sleep I wasn't getting at night. (Side note: Erika told me that she worried about me on my first night because the way I sleep looks like I'm suffocating myself with a pillow! Do I really sleep like that?)

During breeding season the males excrete a smelly red liquid behind their ears.

We had pythons come onto the property twice on separate occasions during my stay. They also always came between 1:00am-4:00am. Pam said that pythons came in four sizes: small, medium, large, and monster. She had only ever had one monster sized. The pythons came in hopes of eating a fruit bat. You could tell one was nearby when the bats started moving around erratically in their cages. Pam hated all snakes, especially these bat eating pythons. Erika had already caught several, so she did most of the work to catch the snakes, while I kept them from curling around anything and helped put them in a trash can like container to release in a bat free location a distance away. The pythons we caught during my stay were small-medium sized.

The smallest python we caught. Photo taken during release in bat free area.

Fiona (wallaby) and Kit (fruit bat) were pretty awesome, so I have a ton of pictures of them. Fiona was found in a pouch after her mother was hit by a car. Due to her dark features, everyone thinks she is a Swamp Wallaby. Fiona came to Bat Reach nearly two weeks before I arrived. Pam doesn't like raising macropods (bouncy marsupials) since they require a crazy amount of commitment and don't have a great success rate. Erika fell in love with the tiny pink wallaby and convinced Pam to let her give it a try. Fiona is fed 5ml of specialized Wombaroo brand formula every three hours. She only eats if her eyes are covered and she is warm.She has to be stimulated to use the bathroom and covered in multiple types of lotion to keep her from becoming too dry. Her basket is filled with blankets and heating pads which keep her between 30-32 degrees Celcius. Taking her out of her fabric pouch for only a few minutes can substantially lower her body temperature. 

During my time at Bat Reach I got to watch the process of her eyes go from sealed completely shut to wide open. I watched Erika tirelessly try different brands of lotion on Fiona's dry skin looking for something that would help with the peeling caused from the dry heat of the pouch. She should be out of the danger zone by now, and will start to grow fur soon. Eventually she will be soft released onto wild private land. I can't wait to see pictures of her all grown up!

And, of course, there was Kit. Fruit bat mothers will often leave their heavy babies for short periods of time to go in search for food. Kit's mother never returned. By the time he was brought to Bat Reach he was thin and covered in flies and their eggs. He got cleaned up and found a new mom in Erika. Kit gets fed approximately every four hours and is a glutton for formula. To eat, Kit grabs Erika's shirt with his feet. Erika wraps a small blanket around Kit, like his mother's wings, and tilts him upside down like he would drink naturally. He chews on things as he teethes, climbs on everything he can reach, and makes loud squeals each time Erika walks by the room. When I arrived, Kit was in a basket in the corner of the living room. Right before I left, he was moved to a larger space in the middle of the room with a rack to hang on and flap his wings.

One day a macropod rahabber visited Pam with a little male glider she had found under a tree the night before. He was sickly and young, so she took him home, but didn't have anything nourishing to feed him. Everyone thought he was a sugar glider, but Pam corrected us that he was in fact a squirrel glider. When I first saw the glider he was curled up into a stiff ball, frail, thin, and only taking an occasional sharp breath. Pam put him in a fabric pouch and Erika and I fixed up a nice fluffy basket for him. I checked on him constantly throughout the day and convinced Pam to give him subcutaneous fluids every few hours, even though she was sure he wouldn't make it. His breathing evened out and his body relaxed. By the evening, he was able to stand up on shaky legs. I had a clear liquid mixture made for him to drink. Gliders at his age (just about to leave their mom) drink on their own quite well, so we filled a cup with the liquid and gave him small spoonfuls at a time to lap up with his tongue. He rejected drinking anything a few times. I would just wait and try again a little later. Eventually he gave in. That night I named him Pluto, due to the fact that he was tiny, grey, and everyone kept misidentifying the type of glider he was.

I woke up at 1:30am and 4:30am to feed him again that first night. By morning he was much improved, probably looking better than I was. Erika took a few pictures of him as he ate his breakfast. He wasn't going to the bathroom by himself, so I had to stimulate to get him to urinate at all. After a couple days, he didn't need my help anymore to use the bathroom. His clear liquid drink became a vitamin rich fruit, insectivore, formula smoothie, with honey for a treat sometimes. He was increasing in activity and weight each night. We didn't weigh him, but it was easy to see the difference compared to the skeleton he came in as.

By the time I left he was already looking amazing! I'm so happy I got the chance to work with Pluto. Some of the evening volunteers were so impressed with his improvement that they wanted to put a little blurb about him in the local newspaper. I was asked to write a short paragraph about his story. They specifically told me not to go into detailed facts about the species, which was difficult for me. They posted the paragraph on the Bat Reach Facebook page and it should be in the paper sometime in April.

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