Finalist/Honorable Mention, 2015 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
“Tant qu’on a pas aimé un animal, une partie de son âme reste non-réveillé“ (Until one has loved an animal, part of one’s soul remains unawakened.)
– Anatole France, poet and Nobel laureate (1844-1924)
* * *
Bitty. I name the creature Bitty.
The bat is so itty-bitty-teeny-tiny her body embraces only half my thumb, to which she clings during our first moments. Clings to with eyes shut: either because she naturally re-immersed herself in torpor, or from exhaustion. Exhaustion due to merciless battering from an overindulged, overweight cat.
I gaze at Bitty, turning my hand this way and that, trying to examine who and how she is. When Bitty repositions herself, I gently tease apart her velveteen wings, double layers of skin stretched across bones so finely etched they are calligraphic. On the left side her skin is tattered, the flight membranes slashed into quiescence.
Perhaps her wing could be repaired, the elastic skin super-glued and allowed to heal. I have a choice: unhook her from my thumb and place her outside, and death is certain; an upside-down version of the natural order, as Bat is endemic and Cat is non-native, invasive. But then again, maybe Cat obeyed ancient instincts and preyed upon the weaker one, the sick one.
I am pondering the options when Bitty’s translucent ears twitch softly, like minute sonic beacons, and my insides coalesce into such earnest desire there is no choice. As long as she lives and eats, I must try a homegrown bat rescue, rabies scares be damned.
* * *
Bitty is not the first wild fur ball to charm the pants off me. In the manicured hinterlands of coastal Florida I fed my carefully hoarded, only-after-church-on-Sundays candy to wild squirrels: their noses and tails twitching in syncopation, their haunches propelling tawny bodies towards mine. Paw-fingers outstretched to grasp and gnaw every last one of my chemically enhanced peppermint Tic-Tacs ®. A juvenile case of dope peddling.
The squirrels were a side act. A hypersensitive child navigating an abusive household, I constantly searched for things to care for: the more exotic, the better. Incapable of not, I clumsily attempted to rehabilitate baby rabbits, scrub jays, and anole lizards, while lacking rudimentary training in bio-physiology or thermodynamics. Despite patient efforts to craft the perfect faunal refuge or coax homemade recipes down pursed beaks, my charges expired in less than a week. Dead from internal injuries, from stress and trauma, from malnutrition and heat loss.
Yet heroism remained alluring. Saviorhood for the otherwise powerless.
I joined the ranks of lifelong experimental critter-savers, stubbornly recalibrating our fumblings after each failure. We popularized the spaying and declawing of kitties. Developed better detergents for removing crude gunked onto waterfowl feathers. Bankrolled advanced veterinary surgery. Designed more elaborate band-aids to extend innocent lives.
And native biota kept disappearing, their home territories shrinking like raindrops on hot asphalt. As we two-leggeds forged into biomes previously left untouched, clearing old growth woods for our first, second, and third homes; draining and paving wetlands to shave ten minutes off our commute time, we expanded our “humane” shelters to treat a wider variety of fin, fur, feather, and scale.
Career rescuers became combat physicians, perpetually patching up and exporting casualties from the middle of a war zone. Channeling our anthropomorphic distress into doable acts, we stuck our compassionate, bitten, and chewed fingers into ever-increasing holes in the dams. Refused to yield to the inevitable floods.
* * *
“I taut I taw a puddy tat!” declares rotund, yolk-yellow Tweety Bird, swinging on his perch. Eyelashes fluttering saucily, he announces the incursion of sly, svelte Sylvester the Cat and the beginning of another animated predator-prey romp during Saturday morning cartoons. Even with Sylvester’s claws glinting and feathers flying, the scenes are comical because we know that Sylvester, despite test-driving an endless gamut of ingenious get-Tweety schemes, is a bumbling fool. Doomed. Try as he might, he will never eat Bird.
Turn the television off and switch our focus to feline pets and we enter the dark side of the looking glass. In contrast to Sylvester, and in concert with their feral cousins, domesticated kitties are awesome killing machines. What appears to be a random selection of minor executions: bird-batting on the back porch, mouse entrails in the living room corner, adds up. To a whopping twenty billion bird and mammal deaths each year.
I don’t know when I became inured, or perhaps the right word is habituated, to the predictable outcomes of critter-unfriendly choices. Such as domestic cats, who are nature-bound to hunt; and petroleum-fueled everything, oil being nature-bound to spill, somewhere, somehow.
Was it growing up on a steady diet of Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Wile E. Coyote, and Road Runner: oddly displaced critters trying to survive in a world of Acme trucks, canneries, and [sub]urbanization? I thought their strangers-in-a-strange-land antics and accents hilarious. Did The Looney Tunes teach me to consider habitat destruction as just another game of chase-me?
Belatedly, begrudgingly, I acknowledge my starring role in a zero-sum interspecies competition. A match where belonging to the winning species means losing out. I own these conundrums not just because I am a scientist, keenly aware of harmful trends long before they are featured in the media, but because I am a pet-owning, car-driving, house-occupying human who enjoys cartoons. I am a card-carrying, typically hypocritical member of the human race.
I pretend I can eat my cake and have it, too.
* * *
Bitty stretches, yawns, falls back to sleep.
The clock is ticking and I have a still-breathing somebody in my hand. It has taken less than fifteen minutes for my heart to melt into a puddle, a condition my pragmatic-optimistic brain recognizes as unhelpful.
We need data to save Bitty.
I try a digital taxonomic search to confirm Bitty’s identity. She weighs less than an ounce, but so do another twenty-odd species of Californian bats. She’s uniformly brown with a snub nose, which eliminates half the contenders. Sleuthing through a swamp of densely worded scientific monographs – replete with details crucial to zoologists but maddeningly obscure to everyone else – I try to cut to the chase, ticking off distinguishing characteristics. If she has a keeled calcar, that particular feature can narrow the search substantially, but first I have to suss out what a “calcar” is, and what it means to be “keeled.” Darn. Should have taken a mammalian anatomy class back in graduate school.
After much page-flipping, I discover the calcar to be a faintly defined spur. On humans, it would be the calcaneus, the rounded heel bone of our foot. On bats, the calcar extends from the underside of the bat’s foot; but because bat-wing is seamlessly attached to bat-foot which curves into bat-tail, the calcar is actually an extra edge of cartilage running between foot and tail along the bottom hem of the wing. If it is “keeled,” a tiny flap of skin extends from the spur. In other words, I need to determine if Bitty has extra fancy flying boots.
Finally all of the above, plus Bitty-bat’s ear size and shape – especially the length and position of her tragus, or ear lobe, her almost-not-there tail, and the habitat range where I found her, narrow the categories down to two. She is either Myotis lucifugus, the Little Brown Bat, a hairy-toed, relentless mosquito-gobbling machine, or Myotis yumanensis, another tiny brown bat native to the Pacific Northwest. The two species are virtually indistinguishable from each other, due to morphological overlaps in body parts, fur coloring, forearm length, and sonar frequencies. Most biologists have to run DNA tests to be sure.
M. lucifugus is more common to our area, so I go with it.
A Little Bitty Brown Bat.
* * *
To call such exquisite life forms “bat,” a shortened conflation of the early 14th century, Middle English word bakke for flapper, and the Latin term blatta for nocturnal insect, common words invented when we humans were even more ignorant of non-humans than we are now, seems wickedly inadequate.
The poetry of Bitty’s scientific name better evokes the poetry of her existence: Myotis (Greek) for her mouse-like ears, lucifugus – “fleeing from light” – for her vespertilionid habit (most active at dusk). Myotis bats begin their lives in hibernacula – female-only nursing colonies spanning most of North America – and can live to be over thirty years old. But given the realities of indiscriminate, broad-spectrum pesticides and power lines, most only make it to their seventh birthday.
Peering into a scrunched up face, and lightly stroking chocolate-grey bat fur that is softer and finer than satin, I try to assess her physiological maturity. I can’t tell if Bitty is a juvenile, middler, or elder.
The average age of insectivorous bats throughout the eastern United States is declining precipitously. White nose syndrome, an unprecedentedly lethal disease, is rampaging through bat caves, killing millions. In its initial phases, it spread so widely and quickly the United States Fish & Wildlife Service launched a national response plan with a slew of other agencies. For years, as bat colonies collapsed like shattered glass, we were in the dark: we didn’t know what caused the syndrome. We still don’t know the whole story, but we’ve identified the main cause: a previously unknown, possibly invasive fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that scientists discovered after test-driving and eliminating related fungal lineages.
Infected cave-dwelling bats, who depend on hibernation to make it through winter, exhibit masses of white fungal mycelium frosting their muzzles, arms, elbows, wings, feet. They behave strangely: flying during the day and clustering near the entrances of hibernacula, perhaps in an effort to dry out the fungus. All this movement when they should be in torpor depletes the bats’ fat reserves, while the fungal infections handicap wing-dependent functions. Unable to maintain their water balance or body temperature, bats grow dehydrated, chilled, and paralyzed. In many areas, white nose syndrome eliminates 90 to 100 percent of infected colonies; yet in some localities up to fifty percent of infected individuals survive from one winter to the next.
Perhaps there is reason to hope.
* * *
Bats slay me. They tease me with their biological phylogeny: cross-dressers fusing the mammalian and avian worlds, their delicate features rendered in sharp relief by a provocative Creator. Bats live insouciant, daring lifestyles, flaunting crepuscular and nocturnal aerodynamics, and occupying powerful ecological roles. Without bats, many of our natural treasures would crumble: no forests, no orchards. No mangoes, no bananas, no peaches. No tequila, no mezcal. Infinite reliance on chemical treadmills to protect our farms and gardens from insect pests. Far more incidents of nasty mosquito-borne and zoonotic diseases.
Bats entice me emotionally with their toes-up resting stance and their proclivity for constant cuddling. I have slept with bats-in-rehabilitation on three continents: their softly pulsating bodies attached to my clothing like tiny furry extensions of my heart, snugged next to my skin to keep warm.
I pray I can help Bitty.
I delve back into the scientific literature: according to observational studies, Bitty-bat’s favorite foods, beyond mosquitoes, are gnats, beetles, and moths. Then I stumble upon a novel fact. I knew that bats echolocate, but I never thought about the mechanics of how insectivorous bats, especially the more dietary picky ones or “specialists,” who go for a select number of species (as opposed to the less discriminatory “generalists”), capture and consume their prey. If the bat buffet consists of flying insects roaming through a several-kilometer slice of the troposphere, that’s a huge area to cover for one’s dinner. How do bats optimize their hunting strategies?
Turns out my little Bitty bat is preconfigured with a personal fishing net: Myotis bats can “hawk” prey in the air by scooping up flying insects with a flexible portion of the skin called the uropatagium (or interfemoral membrane). Stretched between the lower part of their leg bones and tail (around the same spot where the calcar is located), and looking like a skirty-bat diaper, the uropatagium is flexible enough to curve up completely up and over the bat’s frontside.
If we hominids had an uropatagium, it would be much easier to politely eat with our feet – cramming our webbed toes into our mouths – or play volleyball with our soles uplifted, whopping punts into the air with our butts on the ground.
* * *
To care for Bitty-bat, much as I cared for an injured acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus, the species name referring to their favored prey, ants) by capturing thousands of native ants from our backyard oaks and tweezing them one-by-one onto watermelon slices, I needed to secure wild bat food. Yet when Bitty-bat’s life intersected with mine, I was overnighting in an off-grid house, so I couldn’t use a high-intensity nightlight to create an outdoor insect trap. I tried a candle inside a basin of water, but came up empty.
The next morning, anxious to locate something edible on the bat menu, and assuming the bat’s avian side of the family endowed them with a hyper-metabolism requiring constant feeding, I searched fruitlessly for bat snacks at agricultural feed stores, natural foods cooperatives, supermarkets. No dice.
I cast my line further into the grocery ecosystem. Rural counties like ours with fishable bodies of water inspire charming oddities: fishermen vying for artificially introduced, not-terribly-good-tasting species like bass and carp, Native festivals featuring boats made of edible water reeds, and convenience stores offering live bait next to the beer and Gatorade.
Bitty scores a sawdust-packed Styrofoam container of night crawlers, bought enroute to my science lab at a Buddhist academy. Bringing a wild creature into the classroom can be an excellent teaching moment: we can cover food webs – the interrelationships between who eats whom; or ecosystem services – the crucial role bats play in pollination and transmittable disease suppression. When I introduce Bitty to the kids, my biology students have mixed reactions: discomfort due to erroneous bat stereotypes vying with curiosity and instant fondness for something small, silky-furry, alive, and helpless.
I crack open the bait. The recently purchased wrigglers are still wriggling; juicy larval morsels for breakfast. With Bitty gently grasped in my left hand and a pair of tweezers in my right, I realize I’ve never tried to corral food into such an exquisitely tiny mouth. Even the smallest insect segments are too large; I must secure slices mere millimeters square, an involved, gooey dissection.
I am not accustomed to this: I eat my insects whole.
But I keep at it, and once I achieve the optimal size, Bitty accepts my offering, daintily devouring the segment with miniscule, razor-sharp teeth. I hold a spoonful of water up to her face, and she drinks. The students watch the proceedings, ambiguously alternating between inquisitiveness and repulsion. Ultimately the feeding leaves us mildly thrilled; pleased with the successful bridging of human and other-mammalian worlds.
* * *
Class ends, and I carry Bitty back to my abode. We make it through our first day, Bitty grasping a branch inside the portable terrarium, alternately dozing and feasting. That evening, back in my largely wild and densely wooded homestead, I leave the stairwell light on and the outside door wide open. With the flush of winter-into-spring, our oak forests are rife with insect life. Dozens of moths flitter in. Over the next few nights I trek up and down the stairs with a mesh-capped jar, wildly successful with moth wrangling, supplying as many dusty-winged, juicy prey as Bitty can consume.
The more I hang with Bitty, the more I see how useful a bat’s uropatagium can be. Bitty encircles struggling moths, some as long as her torso is wide, with her extended flap of tail skin, wrapping them in an intimate embrace. Having never witnessed bats feeding on such large insects, I always assumed the mouth-to-prey size ratio to be 3:1, not 1:3. Apparently not.
Bitty-bat is a raunchy eater. She tears into moth flesh, masticates with her mouth open, makes smacking sounds. Bitty’s technique resembles a miniature Sumo wrestler immersed face-first into the depths of his fighting mawashi diaper-and-thong loincloth, voraciously consuming jawfuls of meat engulfed in the folds.
I observe her ferocious munching with relieved fascination. I desperately want to be successful in this rehabilitation. If I save Bitty in a world of missing forests and desecrated mountaintops and endangered species and toxic bioaccumulation and overflowing landfills and catastrophic oil spills and acidified oceans and nuclear meltdowns and a changing climate, then I have moved one step closer towards avoiding complete and utter failure as an environmental scientist.
Restoring Bitty’s health would, in the topography of my mind comprised of depressive ruminations on All I Cannot Save, coax me a few steps back from the ever-looming precipice.
* * *
I check on Bitty-bat frequently over the next few days, maintaining a warming lamp over her terrarium and keeping a jar lid filled with water that she wing-waddles over to and drinks with micro-tongue laps. Bitty continues to work her voodoo on me. She never stops being anything but exquisite. She makes visible a formerly invisible branch of my extended family.
Yet my bat recovery ward turns into a bat hospice. On the morning of Day Four she is no longer moving. When I picked her up, her body is unbearably light, a wisp of a puff of a being.
I don’t know how or why Bitty-bat died. I don’t know what was wrong, or if she (he?) died in peace. All I know is Bitty expired with attentive room service, a moth smorgasbord, and a full tummy. Yet what I know pales in comparison with all I do not know. The true scientist is a humble scientist, prostrate before the infinite realms of not-quite-knowing; of unknowing. The chits of hard-earned knowledge we clutch in our sweaty hands are barely legal tender, unredeemable in most instances.
* * *
Gently lifting Bitty out of the terrarium, I take her outside and offer her back to the elements. My heart cracks open but does not break. I accept that our interventions into the lives of others, no matter how well-intentioned or well-crafted they may be, are quixotic and ephemeral.
We can offer a hand, some food for the soul.
But we must offer what we offer with palms open, fingers splayed.