Spring and early summer are the when the floodgates open for animals. Kitten season is in full swing; well in actuality most of the year is kitten season at this point, seeing as they can have 2-3 litters a year when left to their own devices. Pregnant mothers and newborns are being surrendered to open admission facilities left and right. County shelters are being overrun with emaciated, wormy, sick puppies, citizens are gathering up feral kittens with their eyes glued shut from respiratory infections. I start training on the intake side of the shelter this week, and it’s the uncontested hardest station to work at the shelter. This is where people come to surrender their animals, to return adopted animals that aren’t what they hoped, deliver stray animals they have found, report animals they have lost, and request euthanasia assistance for a pet whose time has come. We watch the shelter fill up from this desk, and hope with every animal that comes in there is a place to put it and there’s some going out the front door at the same time.
The owner requests for euthanasia are not difficult, at least for me. Some owners may wait too long, in anothers opinion, to end an animal’s suffering. But at least they finally do, and we are happy to help with that. We offer the same procedure that the local veterinarian offers; the same pharmaceuticals, the same injection sites, the same loving arms to hold and comfort the animal as it slips into eternal sleep. The only difference is the owner cannot be present and we don’t request hundreds of dollars to do it, just a small destination fee. I am proud to say that those of us charged with carrying out this procedure are very good at it. We handle the animals with professionalism, proficiency and care; when performed by a well trained and compassionate staff euthanasia is over in a matter of seconds. It’s not something you would think anyone would want to be good at, but we are, I am. I take euthanasia very seriously; sometimes it is what’s best for an animal. I am proud of my ability to swiftly lay an animal to rest with minimal discomfort, even in less than perfect circumstances. It is the greatest gift you can give a fellow creature, freedom from physical pain, illness, and even mental anguish. There are many forms of suffering, it’s important to remember that when you are involved in animal welfare.
The owner surrenders and adoption returns, however, are where the true gut wrenching occurs. Seeing first hand how humans have disappointed companion animals in one way or another is not something everyone could handle day in and day out. An emaciated stray with overgrown curled up nails, matted hair, and no identification. A surrendered 11 month old 90 lb mastiff that has never even been let in the house, let alone put on a leash or taught not to kill other animals. A terrified pair of adult cats being brought in because in the divorce they couldn’t decide who should get them, so they decided no one should. An unfortunate purchase from an irresponsible breeder that came with unplanned vet bills 12 hours after it was brought home and unwrapped by someone’s daughter. Listening to all the various reasons people have decided they no longer want responsibility for their animal can be taxing on the heart, and the soul. And practicing quality customer service at the same time can be incredibly difficult. It’s easy to lose faith in your fellow human beings. It’s easy to get discouraged and feel defeated by 11am. This is why we rotate, so one person doesn’t get overloaded in one area. Variety is the key to keeping people motivated, productive, and interested in their work. I have confidence I will be fine, but I won’t lie, the timing could be better. For the past two weeks, and for the next three weeks at least, my patience, strength, and congeniality has been and will continue to be put to the test, and it has nothing to do with which counter I’m sitting at. Because it’s baby bat season.
I’m as passionate about wildlife as I am about most other aspects of animal welfare, but to this day nothing has me more enamored than rehabilitating bats. I attended a wildlife rehabilitation class many years ago when I was at my last agency, and even though it was about other mammals, the instructor specialized in bats, and I quickly became addicted to the idea of interacting with these mystical creatures. At last count, of the over 5000 licensed rehabilitators in the United States, less than 200 of them are properly licensed, trained, and competent to handle bats. And I am now one of the lucky few, a proud volunteer rehabilitator and transporter for Bat World Sanctuary, which is the only accredited bat sanctuary in the United States, and quite possibly the world.
When I finally got my pre-exposure rabies vaccinations, a requirement to work with these animals, I immersed myself in education with my bat mentor and started with my first juveniles. They were good eaters and flew off well. Over the years I have taken in injured bats, grounded starving bats, bats that have been attacked by hawks and blue jays, bats that have been found in pools and fished out with nets. We get them back on track the best we can and then release. If non releasable, they are kept in a sanctuary colony for the remainder of their lives if they so desire. I wintered some evening bats last year that had found themselves out of torpor for various reasons, and they were easy keepers and happy campers. But my favorites are the Eastern Red Bats. Moms can have anywhere from 2-5 pups, and late spring and early summer is when the pups get big enough that they weigh down the mother, or even fall off, and that’s when the calls start coming in. Even if it was a sighting from three hours ago and the last place the bat was seen was a large field behind a building on a college campus, I still go and search.
The red bat babies are incredibly difficult to rehabilitate for me. Last year, I as well as all of the other area rehabbers (of which there are like 5) lost every single one that came into rehab. It’s devastating for me when I lose a bat. I rehab squirrels as well, and am well aware of how many animals cannot be saved, both domestic and wild. But losing bats to me is especially crushing. I think it’s because they are so important to the ecosystem, and so misunderstood. Fruit bats are instrumental in the seed dispersal of plants that produce not only fruits and vegetables, but the production things like coffee, margarine, ink, paper, twine, and chocolate; over 450 commercial products and 80 different medicines are brought to the human race solely as a result of hard working bats. Insectivorous bats, like the ones in the United States, provide free pest control to millions of acres of farmland every night, saving crops from the devastation and diseases caused by insects and reducing the need for harmful pesticides. Additionally, they are the strongest and safest line of defense against things like the Zika and West Nile Virus. Not unlike the honeybee, these animals are crucial to the survival of the human race, and their numbers are plummeting due to human ignorance, irresponsibility and intervention; each life that comes to me is too precious to lose. Think about that when the mosquito trucks come by your house at 2am, spraying poison to coat the air and nature with toxic chemicals, because people are too lazy to coat themselves with it instead.
So when I fail, the weight is very heavy. Everything stops for me when a bat call comes in. I skip meals, I lose sleep, waking up to administer drops of formula and colostrum in the middle of the night. I disappear into my rehab room first thing in the morning, waking hours before work to squeeze in as much time as possible with them, and as soon as I come home again. My dogs probably hate it, wondering where I am all the time. But it’s temporary. These animals only need 110% from me for a few weeks; once we are out of the woods it’s back to twice a day, get you fat and let you practice flying before release. But the first week of intake on each little soul is critical; constant monitoring, tweaking the feed amounts, supplements, hydration. I bring them to work to feed and groom them during my lunch hour, I field calls from finders and beg people to contain the animal safely for me until I can get there. I’ve humanely euthanized the ones that don’t take to rehab, to relieve their suffering once it’s obvious they won’t make it. I’ve gently pulled hungry pups from an emaciated and injured mother, told her that her babies were safe with me now, and watched her sigh her last breath in response. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, but I still manage to hold it together, with my understanding family, friends, and coworkers encouraging me that what I am doing matters. Support makes all the difference.
A mother and two pups were delivered to me the other day. She was healthy and the babies were big, just too heavy for her to safely fly with. She was found sitting on the grass huddled over her family, awaiting the inevitable, and was properly scooped up by a gloved and oven mit wielding homeowner and placed in a box. Once in care she recovered nicely. I opted to release her without her pups, since their age was advanced enough for an easy rehab and she wasn’t lactating anymore. While I was feeding her inside her hut on release day (she preferred to eat while hanging instead of being held), she chirped at me, spit out her worm, and in the blink of an eye dropped into flight over my shoulder, as if to say “watch this!”. I watched her in awe, mesmerized, as she silently circled the rehab room over and over, dodging into and out of corners, changing direction in a millisecond to go around my stationary figure as I stood motionless in the center of the room. She finally landed, clicking and echolocating to reassess her situation, so I scooped her up and I fed her another worm after I loaded her back up into a her hut. I took her and an evening bat mother I had received a few nights prior to a local bridge that spans over a creek, held them arm outstretched into the sky, and watched them both quickly fly off in the general direction of where they originally came from. A successful release, with the reassurance that I would do my best with their babies and not to worry.
There is nothing more rewarding than watching a life once doomed take flight anew from your own hands. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the scared unsocialized unloved stray dog that you and your coworkers have been working with for weeks licking the face of it’s new owner after finally being adopted. Here’s to hoping that this year my wins will outnumber my losses with these tiny little miracles, with all sized miracles. Enjoying the success of saving animals is essential to being able to handle the losses…the motivation to continue this difficult work lies in realizing that no matter how overwhelming things may become, we can make a difference, giving up is not an option, and success comes in all forms. And as long as the animals keep coming, which they always will, my door will always be open.