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6 Aug 2020 4:37
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  •   Home > News > Health & Safety

    Bat woman: Ebony shares a house with some of Australia's most misunderstood creatures

    Ebony McIntosh devotes her time — and her house — to care for sick and injured microbats. She explains what's involved in bat rescue and why she is so passionate about saving these animals.

    A "normal" evening in Ebony McIntosh's world often involves grooming tiny bats with a toothbrush, or perhaps watching one zoom around her lounge room.

    The trained wildlife nurse is one of only a handful of Australians qualified to rehabilitate sick and injured microbats.

    She got hooked on wildlife caring at age 11 after raising her first possum joey.

    But it wasn't until she started caring for flying foxes in Brisbane when she was 20 that she fell in love with bats and her life changed forever.

    "[Bats are] definitely my biggest passion," she says.

    Over the past six years she's cared for up to 150 bats at once in her home.

    And as if sharing your house with bats wasn't enough, Ebony has done it while living in an actual share house.

    So what's involved in bat rescue?

    Hang on ... what's a microbat?

    Australia has two types of bats: megabats such as flying foxes and microbats.

    If you spot a bat that has little eyes and big ears, chances are it's a microbat.

    There are around 80 species of microbat found across Australia.

    While most microbats are tiny — many of Ebony's winged patients only weigh around 4 grams — some species such as ghost bats are the size of flying foxes.

    But unlike their megabat cousins, which use their eyesight to get around, microbats use sound or echolocation to find their prey — usually insects.

    People often only become aware they are sharing an environment with a microbat when one turns up in trouble.

    "At the end of summer juveniles are learning to fly, so you get a lot of crash landings, particularly in homes," Ebony says.

    "When you get really hot, dry days, people find them stuck in water, sometimes in water bowls or the kitchen sink."

    "We get a lot of people calling up about a little semi-drowned bat in the bath."

    Winter can also be a danger time, when bats go in and out of a mini-hibernation state called torpor.

    "If they don't have enough fat supplies, they can get stuck in this state, sometimes in odd places," Ebony says.

    "People will find bats on a wall and think it will go away, but it still sitting there a week later."

    From rescue to rehab via ICU

    When Ebony is alerted about a bat in trouble she heads to the rescue equipped with a special first aid kit that contains a soft pouch, rubber bands and a mini-wheat bag.

    "It's important to start warming the bat straight away so that by the time I am home it will be warm enough to start fluid therapy (tiny amounts of fluids injected under the skin) and begin an assessment."

    Things can be touch and go for a recently rescued bat.

    If it looks like it is strong enough to survive it will be placed straight into a humidicrib to regulate its temperature and given fluids twice a day.

    "If I had a very critically ill bat that needed checking regularly through the night I would keep it set up in my bedroom," she says. 

    The humidicrib stops the bat going into torpor, which is where the bats' metabolic rate and physiological activity slow right down.

    "[In torpor] the healing process stops, and they can't metabolise medication. So, we have to keep them at about 32 degrees [Celsius]."

    After a couple of weeks in the humidicrib it's time for boot camp and flight school.

    The little bats graduate from fluids to a diet of meal worms.

    And just like an injured footy player, they need rehabilitation and physio before they re-enter the fray to rebuild their strength and flying capacity.

    Many bats are surprisingly clumsy with a large "turning circle", this means despite their tiny size they need a big space to flap about in so Ebony's lounge room becomes recovery flight HQ.

    What's it like sharing your house with microbats?

    Living with bats obviously has its challenges.

    They're nocturnal for a start, and love to fly, meaning no matter how bat-proof Ebony makes an enclosure there is always a risk of escape.

    "They do turn up though, usually on the curtains or in the kitchen sink," she says.

    "Once I had my keep cup sitting by the sink in the morning and there was a little bat hanging in it."

    Luckily, she's always managed to find housemates who are eager to share the joys of cohabiting with her bat patients.

    "Usually it's been something that everyone in the house contributes to in some way," she says.

    One particular bat called Marcia lived with Ebony for over a year before being released.

    "She was a wonderful sassy little bat," Ebony says.

    Marcia made such an impression on the share house that all the housemates got tattoos in her honour.

    What about disease?

    "Bats get a really bad rap. I think people see these things flying around and think they're terrifying," says Ebony.

    But even as a wildlife carer, the risk of getting sick from bats is very low.

    "Disease often comes from the animal trade because you have a lot of animals [close together] that are really stressed and shouldn't be consumed," Ebony says.

    But, she stresses, if you see an injured bat do not to touch it. Call your local wildlife rescue group.

    When a bat is first rescued it goes through a period of quarantine, and "rehabbers", like Ebony, are careful to only touch a bat while wearing protective gloves during this time.

    If a bat scratches or bites someone, by law it has to be euthanised as that's the most efficient way to test for viruses.

    "As someone who loves bats, I would never take the risk of getting bitten or scratched by them — it's a death sentence for the bat," she says.

    Why save a bat?

    It takes a lot of love and dedication to nurse a bat back to health, but is it worth it?

    Microbats play a key role in the environment, predominantly controlling insect numbers, says Lisa Cawthen who studies Tasmanian bats.

    "One little microbat will go out and eat up to half its body weight in insects per night," Dr Cawthen says.

    "That helps our forests be healthy and helps agriculture by providing natural pest control."

    But nearly half of all the microbat species across Australia are threatened.

    "If we cut down a tree and a colony of breeding bats are injured, that could be the entire breeding population for a species in that area," Dr Cawthen says.

    "By rehabilitating them, we're giving them the best chance to go back and play that important role in the ecosystem for generations to come."

    Bats are very family orientated so when they recover, they are released in the exact place they were found.

    "You don't just open a box and they fly out like a bird," explains Ebony.

    "They sit on a pouch that you hold above your head.

    "They start chattering away and once they hear their family they fly off."

    "They are the best animal to release ever."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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