Why you should care
Because these creatures of the night? Oh, what beautiful music they make.
Care-worn hands secure a soft blanket around the shivering figure on the treatment table. The hands are exceedingly gentle, their movements loving but sure. You can’t see the caretaker’s face, but you can hear her voice.
That’s a good girl, she says in a whisper-song. What a beautiful girl you are. Hello, gorgeous. In your little bed you go. Snug as a bug.
The weary patient, too weak to struggle, submits to the kindly ministrations without a sound. Whoever this faceless woman is, she could have inspired the phrase “capable hands.”
All of us have our crutches and salves, the vices that get us through the day or into sleep. Whiskey, porn, carbonated German mineral water. … After the sudden death of a crucial friend six months ago, I found a late-night sustenance that never ends in a hangover: videos of bats.
Specifically, flying foxes, which are the largest bats in the world.
Bats named Rosebud and Rainbow and Laura. Bats wrapped up tight in bath towels and laundry bins. Little pink-flannel-wrapped baby bat burritos. Bats sucking pacifiers and clinging to stuffed pink bunnies. Bats gumming banana or toothing their way through a tasty grape. And through all of the dozens and dozens of these videos, that voice — sweet, patient, comforting. She will protect you; she will take away your pain. She is an ur-mother.
Her name is Denise Wade, and her wards surely think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Not just because Wade delivers a level of care generally reserved for retired heads of state or Kanye. But also because if you’re a bat and you wind up here, you likely did in fact almost die.
The sonic serotonin boom of Facebook-video cuteness is in stark contrast to the agony, evisceration and death of Wade’s day to day in Brisbane, Australia. “It took me two years to get on top of the euthanasia and the horror,” says Wade, who started the rescue work in 2006 after visiting an exhibit about the animals. The world of a flying fox holds more dangers than five minutes of Grand Theft Auto. Barbed-wire fencing, fruit-tree netting, dogs, high winds (concussion is common), overhead power lines that zap broad wings, guns (shooting them is legal, with a permit, in two Australian states) and even stairwells all spell mortal peril. “If there’s trouble to be had, they will get into trouble,” she says affectionately.
Wade set up shop more or less in the dark. “I was told that you go out, you pick up your half-dead bat, you hang it in the hospital cage, and when you get up in the morning you wonder why it’s dead.” After a few of those experiences, she started learning about things like shock and hydration. Now she and her fellow volunteers — there are about 60 active bat carers with Bat Conservation and Rescue QLD — are adept, she says, at distinguishing the viable injuries from those that warrant immediate euthanization.
The cuddles, the head massages and the pampering on display in the Facebook vids have a serious purpose — they’re core to a holistic approach to care. It’s not just about medication and tossing an apple at the sick animal, says Wade. “It’s the soul that’s damaged that must be helped.”
Batzilla the Bat, the Facebook page that Wade manages, raises all the funds for her work, which frequently involves 18-hour days. In tougher years, when lack of rain means no food, they get about 2,500 calls for rescue. She can’t remember quite how the videos started, but her goal as a passionate bat advocate is to educate and dispel fear.
But aren’t we talking about winged pests and bloodsucking parasites? Not so, says Wade. These “magnificent creatures,” the world’s only true flying mammal, play an outsize role in ecosystems through insect control and pollination. By dispersing seeds, flying foxes create tomorrow’s forests. Amanda Lollar, founder and president of Bat World Sanctuary in Weatherford, Texas, says bats are disappearing worldwide in large part because of human ignorance. Bats make up one-quarter of all mammal species on earth, she says. “Without them, life as we know it would cease to exist. Saving bats is critically important to our own survival.” Wade echoes the ignorance point. “The first thing people say to me is, What about all the diseases? And I say, what diseases? All the diseases! No, there aren’t ‘all the diseases.’” Although different species in different countries do carry different diseases, she says, rabies is the only one that humans can contract from Australian flying foxes.
That said, living near thriving bat populations is not everyone’s idea of a picnic. The aforementioned seed dispersal? That happens via poop. And even though colonies move around, generally giving trees an opportunity to recover, bats trash trees when their colonies roost. “There are problems,” Wade concedes.
The day we Skyped, I eagerly waited for her face to light up my iPhone. After all those months, finally I would be able to put a face to my sleep aid of choice.
But when we connected, she said, “That’s funny — why can I see you?” Aargghh. My screen remained maddeningly dark. Wade, who professes tech illiteracy but has a Facebook community of 234,000 and videos that regularly rack up 50,000 views, is apparently camera-shy.
”I guess I’ll have to remain an enigma,” she laughed.