Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Tolga Bat Hospital

Trans North bus from Kuranda to Atherton was to leave at 4:20pm. Erika, Pam, and I all checked the schedule and agreed that Pam would drop me off at the bus stop at 4:10pm. I was paranoid that we were cutting it a bit too close, but was reassured that there would be no issue. Jenny of Tolga Bat Hospital was set to pick me up at 5:15pm from the Atherton bus stop. 

I spent all day packing my bags and hauled them up to the stop in perfect time, with Pam beside to send me off properly. There was one bus at the stop. Even though the bus was clearly marked to be traveling to Cairns, the opposite direction, the bus driver waved me forward to speak to her. 
"How ya going? Where you off to?"
"Good. I'm headed toward Atherton." I nervously responded.
"You missed the bus, Love. It left at 4:05," She said as she handed me a small piece of white paper with the complete Trans North schedule stamped on the glossy side. It clearly stated that she was correct. 

In irrational frustration I returned to the car with Pam. As soon as we entered the door, I double checked the bus schedule we had originally looked at. It also confirmed that the bus was to leave Kuranda at 4:05pm. Somehow all three of us had been positive of the incorrect time. Jenny was understanding when I called to explain the mix-up, and Pam had no issue with me staying another day. There was truly no problem at all, except a minor inconvenience on waiting one day. Regardless, I was not a happy camper about the situation. I don't like waiting for change. It's a band-aid that I would rather have ripped off quickly. 

The next day went much smoother. I made the 4:05pm bus without any trouble and was greeted in Atherton by Jenny. Jenny is a woman not much taller than myself, but with a body only created from a life of flawless fitness regimes. She greeted me quickly and threw my bags into her hatchback trunk. Since she lived a bit out of town, she decided we should stop at the grocery store (they usually just call grocery stores "the shops" in this area). 

Most of the volunteers don't bring their own transportation, so Jenny does weekly food runs by herself. Volunteers pay her a small daily amount and she buys their food. It sounded pretty straight forward to me until we went on this first shopping spree. She asked me what I'd like to get for breakfasts.
"I should be fine with fruit, juice, and maybe a box of muesli (granola) bars."
"You don't need any fruit. We have plenty of bananas and apples for the bats that you can eat. I don't buy juice. I stopped drinking it years ago after I found out how processed they make it," she explained in detail as we made our way to the health section of breakfast foods. I discretely grabbed the chocolate chip chewy granola bars, hoping she wouldn't spot the sugar content from my basket. And so on our shopping trip went as she discovered the horrors of processed, packaged, and preserved food that I found delicious. She even called my precious Coca-cola "junk food" as we left the store. It was clearly going to be a long few weeks for my tummy and taste buds. 

Just outside of Atherton was a nice park next to a large wooded area. Jenny pulled into the playground carpark (parking lot) as I glanced from the monkey bars to the swing, wondering what exactly I was expected to do. She jumped out and grabbed several heavy boxes from the back seat, gesturing for me to do the same. I followed her into the thick of the woods along some imaginary path she knew by heart. Every tree limb she gracefully curved around slapped me in the face with force. My arms already ached from holding half the weight she carried. I silently breathed a thank you to myself for wearing practical clothes that day instead of a nice dress, which I would normally wear on a day of travel. (I like to be pretty for first impressions.) 

We arrived in a small clearing after a decent hike for myself and a simple leg stretch for Jenny. The clearing had a table stacked with various unidentifiable objects which we placed our boxes atop. Behind the table towered a cage several feet taller than me, wide enough to fully out-stretch my arms, and long enough to fit a long mattress within. I wouldn't recommend sleeping inside though. Hanging from the mesh along the cage ceiling were dozens of teenage bats, eager for independence, but not quite ready to leave a free daily meal. The cage was positioned close to a wild colony of bats. Fruit bats nearing release lived in this cage for a week prior to release in order to acclimate to the wilderness. If they did well, the doors would be opened so they could freely join the wild colony. If they weren't ready, they would either stay in that cage longer with food supplied or return to the bat hospital. I was told to string whole apples onto am arm-length wire and bend both ends into hooks which then hung from the mesh. Jenny placed a variety of other fruits and juices (Juice apparently isn't too processed for bats) inside the cage as I prepared the apples. Once everything was cleaned, we gathered supplies and carried much lighter boxes back to the vehicle.

As we drove Jenny probed for more information about me. I obliged politely, but was feeling a bit too tired to fully engage in conversation. We drove for what seemed like a long time, and finally ended in a gravel parking spot, next to a heap of buckets and wheelbarrows. Tolga Bat Hospital was beautiful! The land was perfectly manicured, accented with garden beds and decorative ponds, with a backdrop of misty, rolling hills. There were three main buildings. The first was Jenny's house. The front side of her house was private, while the back side was made up into a visitor center, overlooking the bat enclosures. The next house was for volunteers. It contained a living room, bathroom, kitchen built into the hallway, and large bedroom with three twin beds. I was the only live-in volunteer at the moment, so I got choice of bed. (Later on paranoia about ticks caused me to change that decision.) The third building was for nursery bat care and research. It included a large bathroom, small single bedroom filled with scientific looking books, a kitchen only for bat food prep, a nursery stacked with baby bat baskets, and a jungle gym room for bats to get some exercise. Since no researchers were visiting and the season's babies had all made it to teenagers, the building was never truly used during my stay.

The visitor center side of Jenny's house.

The Nursery/Research Building

Nursery Kitchen

Baby room of nursery

Jungle gym, with fake momma bat for comfort

Jenny preferred all volunteers to eat a group dinner. This rule still applied to me even though I was the only volunteer. Spaghetti was the first dinner she made. I suggested buying a jar of sauce at the store, which she protested against. Instead, she made her own version from beef, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, a few other unidentifiable vegetables, and just a hint of tomato paste. It was pretty good, but deserved its own word, as I would certainly not have classified it as Spaghetti Bolognese. Breakfasts and lunches were self-serve from the few items off my grocery list which she felt were worthy of buying. Dinners were always an experiment on my taste buds. They were always healthy with an occasional tasty meal. I was permitted to cook twice- chilli one night, stir-fry the next. My chili uses a spice mix and canned carrots, so I was the only one to eat it. The stir fry was enjoyed by all. 

The volunteer house I stayed in was very nice, but had noticeably not been cleaned for several years. Halfway through my first night I woke to a massive migraine. I'm not sure if it was from all the dust surrounding me or from the stress of change. Either way, I was miserable with no pain medications. The day arrived in painful slow motion, and I went down to the cages to start work at 8:00am. Jenny had suggested we started work at dawn, but I cleverly talked her into the benefits of a few extra hours of sleep. 

Keeping with the beauty around them, the cages were amazing! There was one huge main cage, allowing bats to fly freely high above. The lower parts were segmented into small feeding rooms. Each of these rooms had openings designed so only specific species of bats could enter for their dinner. Jenny was currently completing an inventory of her bats numbering into the triple digits, so several of the smaller cages were closed with already examined bats inside. 

The flying fox cages, with black, grey headed, little red, and spectacled flying foxes loose within the largest part. Naughty male flying foxes that couldn't fly were kept on the covered trees just outside of the cage, with food still supplied.

Some of the smaller cages inside and worm farm trays in the back.

Morning work began with squeegeeing poo and spat from the floors into buckets. (Spat is fruit fiber that has been chewed and spit out after all the juice has been swallowed.) The buckets were then dumped into worm compost trays near the back of the main cage. Worms were used only for compost purposes. Once the worms successfully converted the revolting slop to a slightly less gag inducing worm-poo and dirt mixture, it was scooped into flower beds for fertilizer. The remaining unyielding goo on the floors was power washed off with a hose. Uneaten food was placed into the refrigerator, and water bottles were filled. Wild fruit bats consume huge amounts of salt from salt water and from chewing leaves containing high contents of salt. Because of this, they were given two salt water bottles per each fresh water bottle. Usually both salt water bottles were drained before any bats would touch the fresh water bottles. 

In many places, the cages would be considered clean at this point. Not at Tolga! It was time to scrub every speck of dirt away. There were three devices used to achieve this goal: a normal scrub brush with a long pole, a scrub brush with a pole on its side (built to hold the pole for stability, but to scrub under the weight of a foot), and scrub pads to attach to the bottom of shoes. To reach the level of spotlessness expected, all three devices had to be used. It was an intense full-body work out. The cages were given one final spray down, the rubber drain covers were hung to dry, and the dirty food dishes were washed. Once a week, the dirtiest dishes had to be soaked in bleach and then washed in soapy water before returning to their cages.

Jenny had two dogs, both Kelpies, which roamed the property as I worked. Geurri (pronounced gee-ah-ree, with an Australian accent on the R which I gave up on even attempting by this point and which I probably spelled incorrectly) was the most affectionate of the two. She was adopted because of her amazing resemblance to Spectacled Flying Foxes, in fact, her name is even the aboriginal word for that species. She usually stayed close and only wanted an occasional pet of assurance as people passed by her. Milla, although the same breed, hardly cared for affection at all. She wanted to play fetch. If she saw a stick, it was game on! It could be a needle sized strand of hay or a tree trunk too big to fit into her mouth; she wanted it thrown. On one occasion I gave in to her demands with a large branch. She missed the branch, but it managed to knock a sizable lump atop her scull. Milla only brought me small sticks after that. It's quite amazing she brought me any at all considering my terrible aim. In the same day, I threw her precious stick behind a refrigerator, into a glass door, and finally, deep within a garden pool. 



Theoretically, the afternoon (or Arvo) was free time. In actuality, it was project time. Since the volunteer house was so desperately in need of a clean, it way my job as the only volunteer to get it back to it's original glory. As soon as I finished lunch, Jenny would describe in absolute detail what needed to be done. The six windows and two sliding glass doors, for example, were to be vacuumed, swept with a hand held brush and dust pan, scrubbed with a homemade cleaner, and then squeegeed clean using water. I had the hardest time getting used to the homemade cleaners. They never seemed to actually make the slightest difference to me. Let it be clear, I didn't really mind the work. I simply wasn't used to the amount of daily physical labor and perfection involved with every single task. I admire the high standards that Tolga is able to maintain. Each day was a new afternoon project, but it was alway equal intensity. Cleaning with the lights off in order to save energy took it a little too far for me at times, but I made it work.

Banana time was 2:00pm. I guess you could call it food prep, but banana time sounds funnier. Tolga Bat Hospital feeds bats bananas through hanging square bird feeders- lots of them! Each feeder contains four bananas, which the bats lick out. Ripened bananas were kept in either the outdoor banana cupboard, or the microbat cage when there was no room left in the cupboard. The filled baskets were too heavy to carry, so wheelbarrows were used to haul them to the picnic table for prep. A yellow spotted honey eater (that's a bird) stayed nearby to assist quickly if any banana fell. Once all of the feeders were done, it was time to make smoothies! Unfortunately, they were for the bats too. Bananas were cut up until they reached the three-fourths line of gallon buckets. A high-power mixer was used to create a paste which protein powder, baby formula, and a bit of water were added. 

In order to ensure a full stock of ripened bananas every day, Jenny got trailer loads of green reject bananas from nearby farms. The emptied baskets were restocked with these bananas and sprayed with chemicals to help them ripen at top speed. The filled baskets were placed back in the cupboard where they could ripen without worry of pests reaching them.

One thing I greatly appreciated at Tolga was their use of educational signs everywhere. I was able to learn more as I completed tasks.

Nearing the end of the trailer load.

Once the bananas were restocked, the feeders and smoothie buckets were pushed in the wheelbarrow downhill to the cages. There was a full size refrigerator just inside the front doors of the main cage; it was always overflowing with apples and juice. Whole apples (halves for little reds) were strung onto flexible metal rods and hung up in the cages along with the banana feeders. Smoothie was poured into bowls which hung along the cage sides at approximately head level of the different species. Bottles of juice were hung for the little red flying foxes, though the other megabats did everything in their power to get to the juice first. The whole process was usually completed around 4:00pm to 5:00pm. The final product looked beautiful, like decorating a Christmas tree.

I took this picture before the banana feeders were put out. 

One of the naughty outdoor boys flashing and sticking his tongue out at me after getting fed.

In addition to a second set of isolation cages for megabats closer to the visitor center side of Jenny's house, there was also another impressive cage designed for the few individual microbats brought in to Tolga. Their building was more of a true dome of green and white mesh. The inside was open for the bats to fly freely, but there were wooden boxes along the sides for the bats to sleep in, unlike the flying foxes. Not all fruit bats are large, so any small fruit bats were kept in smaller cages within the microbat enclosure. During my time there, there was only one tube nose bat which fit that category. Each evening it recieved a few chunks of fruit clipped to the roof of its cage and some juice in a hanging bottle. The microbats all were given vitamin dusted mealworms placed directly under their wood boxes. The mesh of the cage also allowed bugs inside, further attracted with a small light in the center of the ceiling. Only one microbat required specialized feeding. He had to be put into a tiny wooden igloo, away from all of the other bats with his mealworms before he would eat them. The microbats were fast to feed so Jenny often did them while I was feeding the others.

The additional isolation cages for megabats.

The inside of the microbat cage.

The inside of the microbat cage, showing some of the wooden boxes.

After feeding all of the bats, Jenny and I would eat dinner and then part into our separate houses. Each day thoroughly exhausted me. I would lay in bed, counting every mosquito on the ceiling waiting to suck my blood. I would listen to the now familiar sounds of bats and possums as I read in the light of my lamp, with shadows of moths fluttering along the pages. Eventually I would realize in shock that it was past some late hour, such as 9:00pm, and allow myself to sleep.

I stayed at Tolga Bat Hospital for approximately two and a half weeks before getting a ride with Bat Reach volunteers to Eagle's Nest Wildlife Hospital, an hour or so farther into the middle of nowhere. While the lifestyle of Tolga took quite a bit of getting used to, I was considerably impressed with the care, passion, and hard work that went into everything. I am very appreciative of the time I spent there and all that I learned during that time.

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