Mastering the Bat

Can a rare creature that recently fell to Earth be revived? Tune in to this bat station.

The victim was female, in serious condition, sprawled bellydown in her tattered, brown, velvety coat near the Sears store on the edge of Coral Gables. When Luzandra Diaz arrived on the scene early in the evening of February 10, people were poking at the incapacitated little body with car keys, wondering if any life remained. "Oh my God, I got upset! I got really upset!" cries Diaz, a 29-year-old histologist. So she inserted the injured one into a plastic bag, made a quick purchase inside the department store, and then drove off to find help.

The casualty was a female Florida mastiff bat (Eumops glaucinus floridanus), an elusive subspecies whose only known remaining habitat is the Coral Gables area. It was once common in the southern reaches of the Sunshine State, especially along the coast, but since the mid-Sixties only twelve have been sighted, according to bat biologists. A researcher observed a colony of eight in Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast in the late Seventies. There have been four other sightings, including the latest one, in Coral Gables vicinity, since 1988. The total Florida mastiff bat population is unknown, according to Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida, a biological reference book. The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (FGFFC) lists it as endangered.

Diaz took the bagged bat to two veterinary offices, but staffers turned her away. One employee suggested she try the Miami Museum of Science's Wildlife Center. The museum was closed by the time Diaz arrived, but she managed to find a lingering biologist. She handed over the bat and went home to Coconut Grove. But because the museum treats only birds of prey, the bat was transferred to the Wee Care Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Homestead.

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The injured mastiff bat is missing skin at the tip of her tail, she is weak, and she cannot fly, says Wee Care's director, Pat Knox, who teaches environmental science at St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School in South Miami. But her condition is improving and she now has a name: Ferenga. "She's eating fine," Knox maintains. "Why [she] was in a parking lot is beyond me. Maybe an owl grabbed her while she was flying."

During the day, while Knox is teaching, her husband Tom nurses Ferenga. Because the animal's loose forehead skin forms a downward point between its eyes, it vaguely resembles the Ferengi merchants in Star Trek, hence the name. Tom Knox holds the winged mouselike creature in a blue dishtowel, which protects him from the bat's tiny, gnashing teeth. Each afternoon, using a tweezers, he stuffs 40 to 50 beetle larvae, one at a time, into her mouth. Her tiny piglike snout wiggles as she chews. Tom has a few additional chores at the nonprofit animal shelter, which also happens to be the couple's house and one-acre yard. Among other things he must tend to Armando the armadillo; Shadow, the fox with a dislocated hip; Beanie the white-tail deer, whose mother was killed by a bean picker near Immokalee a year ago; a no-longer miniature potbellied pig; a dozen parrots; several iguanas; three baby opossums; and a finch. A semiconscious waterlogged white pelican, rushed to Wee Care from Turkey Point by a concerned member of Homo sapiens, expired while New Times staffers were at the center.

Things could be worse for Ferenga. Ferengi and Ferengi II, two male Florida mastiffs bats, were far more battered than she. Ferengi arrived at Wee Care in critical condition on June 5, 1995. He had sustained internal injuries after flying down a Coral Gables chimney and plopping onto a sofa. The homeowner squeezed him with kitchen tongs and tossed him out the front door.

Pat Knox fed Ferengi and helped him relearn how to hang (crucial for bat health). After a few weeks he began rehabilitation. Knox released the bat onto a bath towel spread out on a king-size bed, a technique she calls dropping. As the bat regained use of its wings, Knox increased the distance of the toss, a phase she calls gliding. Eventually she moved the treatment to the back yard, into a walk-in, wood-frame cage with sand on the floor and plastic screens on the sides. Ferengi was able to glide further and further each time.

Five months after being tonged, Ferengi was deemed ready for release. FGFFC biologist Mark Robson affixed a transmitter capable of emitting a signal for three miles to the bat's back. From the roof of the biology building at the University of Miami, Pat Knox flung Ferengi, and he flew. "We lost that bat in five minutes," Knox recalls. She suspects the transmitter fell off.

Ferengi II was more problematic. He arrived March 15, 1997, with internal injuries sustained after flying down another Coral Gables chimney and receiving a body slam to the carpet by a Great Dane's paw. Knox performed another five-month rehabilitation. Again Robson marked the recovery by attaching a transmitter to the bat. It was time to fly.

Knox and Robson staged this release at the Granada Golf Course in Coral Gables. Researchers in eight vehicles tracked Ferengi II over the next two nights. On the third night, they detected a weak signal and found the fellow in a fountain at a private home. After drying him out for a few days, they again hurled him heavenward from the golf course, and he circled the Biltmore Hotel tower for hours. Two days later, Robson found Ferengi II entangled in one of the building's air conditioners. During the accident the animal dislocated his thumbs, which a bat needs to climb and cling. A veterinarian wrapped the tiny digits, but Ferengi II died four days later. Knox thinks his death was stress related. His passing was not in vain, though. "Biologists got more information tracking that one bat than they had accumulated in 30 years," Knox attests.

Ferenga's rehabilitation will start soon. She's already hanging and she's met Knox's fourth-grade environmental-education class. The students are crafting a pamphlet urging people who may have bats in their belfries to take some sensible precautions: Make sure chimneys are bat-free before lighting fires, and if you must pick up a bat, do so gently, using a towel.

Bat rescuer Luzandra Diaz is disturbed at the savage nature of her own species. She believes Ferenga might have been prostrate for hours on the sidewalk in front of Sears. "All these people were coming by and poking it. If I were a bat, that wouldn't make me very happy," she exclaims. "It was cruel."

kirk_nielsen@miaminewtimes.com

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