Audrey – Portrait of a Pipistrelle

Another Tuesday, another day on the Bat Line. Only one call, a message from someone at the Bat Conservation Trust asking for someone to call them. I dutifully returned the call and was passed the details of a member of the public in Bolton who had contacted them to say they had an injured bat. By the sounds of it the bat was in a bad way. After trying to find a member of the group local to them with no success I decided to collect the bat myself.

I’ve not long passed my driving test and the heavens opened up on me as I drove north to collect the bat. Rain so big people in other cars couldn’t see me waving sorry as I blundered my way through a couple of tricky junctions. Stacey had come with me and helped me out with decisions and fed me boiled sweets. I picked up the precious cargo and headed over to the home of one of our injured bat consultants (IBC) who helped and observed me weigh and measure the bat, ID and record the gender too. It was an adult female.

She had cat teeth shaped holes in both wings and a tear in one too. On her back was a large gash. We cleaned her with a saline wash. She weighed 3.17g. Despite her ordeal she put up an admirable resistance to inspection, displaying good teeth in the process. I ID’d the bat as a common pipistrelle and an adult. The size of the bat and shape of the snout (pointier than a soprano pip) were the key ID features. The minimum release weight for this species is 4.5g. Our IBC provided me with some rehydration fluid and some mealworms and some advice and off I went. I was to care for the bat and take her to a vet to look at the gash on her back and her left shoulder which according to our IBC felt loose.

If she was coming home with us it seemed appropriate to give her a name rather than continue to call her Injured Bat as we had been. Stacey suggested as she was my first injured bat why not choose a name starting with A? Audrey it was.

Back home I gave her some rehydration fluid from a small paintbrush. This was the first time I have ever seen a bat’s tongue…

That's more like it :)

While you enter into bat care keeping in mind that this is a wild animal, a piece of wildlife which you are minding temporarily in an attempt to get it back into nature as quickly as possible, the sight of something that small licking the end of paintbrush would melt the coldest of hearts. Your eyebrows knit reflexively in and up and your mouth opens in a silent “R”.

That night I woke up unintentionally at 3am and after lying in the dark wondering for a while I got up and crept into the spare room to check on her. She was alive and acting unsuspicious.

The next day I texted Frenchi to ask for the number of the vets she used to take her canary, Bird,  to in Chorlton. Frenchi has a baby and we shared experiences in our text conversation about finding it impossible not to go and check on our respective dependants.

I made an appointment at Ashley Vets for that evening, after confirming that they take wildlife cases. When I left work I called Stacey. Was she home yet? Could she look in on Audrey? What was she doing? Hanging upside down? Is she moving at all? Moved her head a bit? Good. When I got home the three of us headed to Chorlton.

The last time I was in a vets was in 1988 with my gerbil, Sooty. I remember feeling like I was going to cry when the vet gave her an injection. She died two days later on Christmas Day. When my dad told me she was dead I didn’t know how to react because I was eight and nothing had ever died before so I blew a raspberry at him. His reaction was one of amused and endeared bafflement.

This vet experience was very interesting. The vet explained that normally when an animal bite like this has scabbed over they would remove the scab to clean it as there will likely be bacteria underneath but that in this case due to the size of the scab and the large surface area it covers would not be advisable.

An x-ray of her shoulder showed that the muscle had been pulled away from the scapula bone. Whether this healed would determine whether she flew again. No guarantees could be given on this. Had a bone in arm been broken or her shoulder been dislocated, the kindest thing would have been to put her to sleep there and then as with an animal as small as a pipistrelle it is not possible to pop the shoulder back in or mend certain broken bones.

I assisted with the x-ray by helping to tape Audrey down to a table. This was neither cruel nor dignified as the tape comes easily off the wings afterwards. Again she made it as difficult as possible and two x-rays were taken on account of her wriggling partly free as the first was taken, resulting in a blurry image. The second image showed the muscle/scapula problem and I was asked how I wished to proceed…

Audrey

I made the decision that as she was not in obvious distress I would not euthanize her there and then and would take her home and attempt to nurse her back to release-worthy health. I discovered that it is very difficult to make decisions purely with your head and not your heart in these circumstances. Especially as vets have a habit of tagging your surname onto the name of the animal you have brought in. But she wasn’t a pet and I made sure I kept that in mind. She may very well still need to be put to sleep if the shoulder didn’t heal. She was not destined to become a pet. The whole point of this, all this effort was to try and release a wild bat back into the wild where she belonged.

Back at home Audrey ate some meal worms. This was another highly rewarding aspect of the bat care. I had never hand fed a bat before and the gusto with which she scoffed down the meal worm guts I offered her gave Stacey and I cause for optimism. By the time she’d had enough the meal worms were beginning to look quite appetising. We went and had chilli instead.

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For the next couple of days we fed her in the evenings and each day she took more meal worms than the days before. She also lapped the antibiotic dilution from the end of a syringe without any fuss. At one point while she gobbled a meal worm up Stacey asked me: “Could you have imagined you’d be doing this 6 years ago?”. It was a good question. I couldn’t have imagined it back then and it’s a nice barometer of my progress so far on my journey from one life to another.

You see people doing stuff like this on TV and wonder how they came to do it? You might even look into it and you discover that the people doing it have been involved in conservation for years and work in the field. You resign yourself to the fact you’ll never get to do that kind of thing. So it’s nice when you find yourself on the other side of the effort to get into wildlife conservation, and you’re the one looking after an injured bat, nursing it back to health.

On Saturday morning I went and bought some more supplies from Pets at Home. Before I left I noticed that Audrey was climbing around the cage. She still wasn’t opening her left wing out and when she was on the roof of the cage she let out the occasional distress sound as though her shoulder was hurting her.

In the evening we went to feed her. I’d checked earlier and she’d been in the half closed box inside the cage, the dark area there containing a soft cloth above a low watt heat mat. When I checked I’d seen her move around a little. Now in the evening I took the lid right off the box and waited a moment for her to stir. I was surprised she wasn’t already becoming active.

Sadly the moment went on. I blew gently on her to try to elicit a response but there was no movement besides that of her fur which moved in the indescribable way that the fur of a mammal recently alive but no longer, does. She’d died some time in the past few hours.

I was very disappointed. Too disappointed. I’d clearly become too attached to this little bat. I had prepared myself for the fact that she may need to be put to sleep but I hadn’t expected this. She’d been eating and drinking and taking her antibiotics. I had really wanted this to end well.

So a sad ending but by no means a waste. I’ve learned a great deal from this. Next time I will be better at not raising my hopes too high and I may not be so quick to give them a name. But I do think it’d be a pity to become too cold to the process. If there is a realistic chance they are going to make it it’d be a shame to choose pessimism just to avoid feeling hurt if they don’t.

You can’t help but project the robustness of people onto them. An air steward once told me on a flight during turbulence: “Aeroplanes want to stay in the air” and I’ve come to view people like that. Our natural response is to live, we rarely just flicker out like that. But bats aren’t people. Their physiology requires a finely tuned equilibrium which when disrupted can be fatal immediately or in the efforts to restore it which follow.

We can only do our best and hope they make it. This one didn’t but I’m wiser for it and grateful for the chance to see close up, such a charming and interesting little creature doing what appeared to be her best too.

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