Monday, February 6, 2012

Frederick the fruit bat

Last week, we found a bat entangled in a barbed wire fence . It was hanging less than a meter from the ground, with one of its wings wrapped around the barbed wire. It was still alive.

We untangled it and took it home, where we gave it water and a rehydration solution. We fed it with a pipet, from which it readily drank.

We fed it every two to three hours, and between feedings we hung it on a little stick propped inside a closet, in the guest bedroom. 

We soon grew attached to it, and named him - it was a male - Frederick. He had some wing damage from being stuck on the fence, but otherwise seemed in rather good condition. Once rehydrated, he became quite active.

Frederick is a Great Fruit-eating Bat, Artibeus literatus. This species occurs throughout Mexico and Central America, and northern South America. Naturally, fruit bats are a lot easier to care for than insectivorous bats. We made him a banana and watermelon smoothie, which he lapped up readily! 

As Fred got more active, he also tried to fly. At one point we heard noises coming from the room, looked at each other, and said "he must be trying to fly". We went in, and there he was, spread-eagled on the floor, making short flappy jumps. When I reached to pick him up, he bit me.

At first, I didn't think much of it. I cleaned the bite wound on my thumb, and we continued to feed Frederick. A couple of feedings later, he seemed ready to be released. After nightfall, we hung him on a piece of string under a little tree in our yard, and gave him a piece of banana. Twenty minutes later, Fred was still there but the banana was gone. Later that evening, we gave him another piece. The next morning, Frederick was gone.

I researched the bat bite a little on the internet, and learned that any kind of bite from a bat is cause for concern; and that after thoroughly cleaning the bite site, I should also seek medical assistance. This I did: the local hospital did not have the anti-rabies vaccine, but they suggested I go to the town's medical center. That was already closed, so I went the next morning, after our field work.

Our medical center here did not have any anti-rabies vaccine, it turned out. They suggested I contact my medical insurance. They referred me to a medical center in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, which is a 45 min drive from here. 

Once we got there and I was checked into the medical center, there was nothing else to do but wait my turn in the crowded hallway. I re-read Alice in Wonderland beginning to end, and had just started on Through the Looking-Glass, when I was called in for an exam.

After hearing my story, and after finding out the bat was no longer in our possession, medical staff there advised me that very likely I was not infected with rabies, but that I should follow an anti-rabies cure, just to be safe. I received a tetanus injection and the first of a series of anti-rabies injections.

So now I'm traveling to Tegucigalpa every day for my shot of anti-rabies vaccine. My regimen prescribes six shots over a period of six days, then one more shot ten days later. I need to be back there for medical exams two more times after that, once in February and once in April.

I'm the darling of the nurses there. There's usually seven or eight nurses attending me, and they take pictures of me receiving the shots almost every time. I'm not quite sure why. When they asked me why I was there, I explained that I was bitten by a bat, and I reassured them that they were quite safe: the bite had not turned me into a vampire. 

A few days before we found Frederick, we found another fruit bat, also entangled in barbed wire. This bat (we called her Mathilda) had been hanging out in the sun for almost a day, and was severely dehydrated. Her condition was much worse than Frederick's, and despite our care, she died a day later.

Barbed wire fences, apparently, are a threat to fruit bats around the world, as this Australian poster from shows. 


Julie Zickefoose said...

Dear John,

I can only imagine the worry encapsulated in this well-told story. I admire and support you for trying to help these wonderful bats. I do bat rehab here in Ohio, and always wear gloves (I've also had rabies prophylaxis shots). But a little undercurrent of worry is always there. I had to have a bat sacrificed to be tested for rabies when it sneezed in my son's face. You can imagine the worry and heartache! I've just gotten a couple more big brown bats in so I'm going to buy a welder's shield for my kids to wear so they can enjoy the animals as I handle them.
Please do wear long sleeves and gloves whenever handling bats. These fruit bats are a handful! And good luck with everything. I'm going to share this post on Facebook. It's great.

johnvandort said...

Thanks for commenting, Julie! Yes, we bought some gardening gloves for potential future rescue efforts, always safety first. Good luck with your big brown bats!

Anonymous said...

Very cute story...

Tom said...

Hey John,

I mentioned this story to someone who was helping me with saw whets last night (didn't need the help as there were no birds despite PERFECT conditions), and he mentioned that it was odd that a bat was impaled on barbed wire, and moreso that you found two. Could birds be finding these bats roosting and impaling them? I don't think you have shrikes down there, but if it is a bird doing this, any suggestions as to what it could be. Be Well.


johnvandort said...

Hi Tom,
We actually have had three of these fruit bats now, all at different locations, not so much impaled on barbed wire as entangled with their wings in barbed wire. Members of that species generally fly lower, especially in high winds I imagine, and sometimes they hit the barbed wire which then punctures the skin of their wings and 'hooks' them. Presumably they then try to fly off but sometimes that only gets them entangled more. It is also a problem for (the much larger) Australian fruit bat. There's an Australian web site which demonstrates this.