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The Waltons rescuer our winged friends

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2015-10-02


Bob Walton recalls one of the first “patients” he brought home to nurse back to health as part of his particular field of conservation and rehabilitation.

“We named her ‘Big Red’,” he says. “We used to let her fly around the house. It got to the point where I could just hold out my hand and she’d land on it, realizing it was time to get fed. I thought ‘that’s pretty smart’.”

Big Red wasn’t a humming bird or a sparrow flittering through the kitchen and filling the Walton’s home with melodious tweets. Big Red was a bat. More specifically, a female foliage bat found tucked into the corner of a business in the Northcrest area, trying to escape the November chill.

For 14 years, Bob Walton and his wife Ann have been relocating and rehabilitating bats at their farm out in Huntertown, often working with Animal Care and Control. “We rescue bats that are the wrong place at the wrong time — typically people’s houses, offices, places like that,” he says. “We get them back out into the wild. If they are injured, we take care of them, repair their injuries if we can.”

Over the course of a year, Walton estimates they probably take in about 200 bats. About 80% of them they simply release into the wild. But if it’s winter, the bats can’t be let go — they hate the cold as much as we do, and won’t survive when its freezing — and they’ll spend the season with the Waltons in one of the bat houses or enclosures they have on their property. “In the winter, we’ll probably have as many as 120 bats,” says Walton. “We keep them isolated for about two weeks, make sure they have no illnesses, then put them in a communal enclosure with the same species and the same sex. When weather improves, we get the males down first. Females, if they’re not pregnant, we let them out a little later.”

Walton is, of course, an expert on bats… but rather than getting into bat care, bat characteristics, bat diet and bat habits, we’ll pause a moment to let about 70% of you finish freaking out.

No one knows better than Walton that people have a lot of strange ideas about bats. More accurately, people are terrified of them, ranking them right up there with spiders and snakes on the “things that give me the creeps” index. “I’m always telling people ‘Don’t believe everything you see in the movies’,” Walton laughs. “You see bats chasing some teeny-bopper in ‘Daisy Dukes’ through a haunted house… it doesn’t happen!”

Bats aren’t out to get you. Usually, they like the corners and out of the way spots of your house for the same reasons you like the corners and out of the way spots in your house — it’s cozy, secluded, usually warm and a nice place to take a snooze. They prefer your attic. When bats get in the living spaces of your house, it’s usually by accident. “It does not want to be in the house with you,” says Walton. “It wants to go outside where it belongs, or back in the attic. Open the doors and windows. They’ll follow the draft. That works just fine (in the warmer months).”

Bats don’t attack. In his 14 or so years taking care of bats, Walton can recall one incident where a bat “went after” a guy. “A pup (baby bat) had fallen on the ground. The guy was trying to stomp it and the mother was trying to get it back.” If you happen to see a living baby bat on the ground, and if you know where it came from, you can probably just put it back or near the colony. The mother will swoop down and take it.

Bats don’t fly in your hair, either. Not on purpose, anyway. “I tell people, ‘if it’s flying in your hair, it’s because you have cooties’,” Walton says.

“But I hear all kinds of things,” he continues. “Invariably, the bat that gets described to me over the phone is always about four times the size of the bat I actually pick up.”

The one Walton hears most frequently is that they carry rabies. It’s true that bats are a contributor of rabies, but it’s very rare. “The amount of occurrences is so small… it’s way out there in the mud,” Walton says. “They estimate it’s something like one bat in 200 million carries rabies.”

“Even then, it’s like a ‘passive’ form of rabies, like when we have the flu,” he adds. “The bat is usually worn down, not eating, won’t fly much. It doesn’t make them vicious. It’s not like Old Yeller, frothing at the mouth.”

That said, you don’t want to have one bite you; unless you can bring the bat in to be tested, you’ll need some very expensive shots, just as a precautionary measure. Walton tells people to always wear gloves when handling bats.

Walton’s busiest season begins in about six or seven weeks, when people start venturing up into their attics to break out the holiday decorations. Attracted by the warmer air, bats will fly down into the house.

And when that happens, don’t panic. Put a newspaper underneath it to collect the droppings (to use in your garden, Walton suggests) and wait for Walton, or one of the people he works with, or Animal Care & Control to come take it away.

During his visits, Walton will explain why the bats are in the house, and offer suggestions on how to keep them out. He says that once people understand how bats operate, they are usually less afraid of the creatures. “We have the people name their bats,” Walton says. “Sometimes it’s a street name, or a mother-in-law. We take a picture, send them a copy, and when the bat is released, we send them a postcard.”

Walton laughs. “Some people think it’s really neat. But it personalizes the animal, and gives the people more of a relationship with nature. That’s the message we’re trying to get out there. It’s a conservation effort. We’re trying to get the bats out there so they do what they’re supposed to be doing.”

And one particularly beneficial thing bats do is eat bugs. Lots of them — flies, mosquitoes, caterpillars, cockroaches… During one night a bat will consume about half its weight in bugs (and if you have bats in your house, they might be there because they’ve found a good source of bugs). It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the Walton’s yard is practically bug free in the warmer months.

The Waltons and their trainees do a lot of education and outreach. To hear Walton tell it, audiences typically start out fearful and leave fascinated. “I always tell people that humans and bats aren’t that different,” he says. “We belong to the same family. You look at the anatomy of a bat and the anatomy of a human… we have longer legs, they have wings. We’re very similar. I sometimes wonder if that’s why they like to hang around us.”

Fort more information on the Waltons and their work, visit goingbats.org

Bob Walton will give a presentation on bats at the Eagle Marsh Barn (6801 Engle Road) for the Little Rivers Wetland Project on Friday, October 9 from 7 PM – 8:30 PM.

Lrwp.org

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