As a child, I totally loved horror movies, even though they scared me no end. After many a sleepless night, I still couldn’t get enough of anything to do with Dracula, vampires or Transylvania. But dreams of vampire bats sinking their teeth into my skin and bleeding me dry left me with an intense lifetime fear of bats. Of course, it would. And why not? That’s what they do, don’t they? Facing my fears I challenge myself to a visit to the Tolga Bat Hospital Visitor Centre.
Go Batty At Tolga Bat Hospital
Just outside of Atherton about an hour’s drive from Cairns, it is run by director Jenny Maclean. Jenny has devoted her life looking after hundreds of megabats and microbats since the 1990’s.
As a rescue centre for sick bats and retired bats from zoos and sanctuaries, the Tolga Bat Hospital also works with educators, volunteers, community groups and veterinarians to increase awareness of issues affecting bats, protection of their habitat and encourages research into the ecology and management of bats.
Bats are listed as Vulnerable to Extinction in the Ecological Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999.
Set in landscaped gardens, nestled in a wet sclerophyll rainforest, a few bats call the hospital their forever home as they can no longer fly or fend for themselves in the wild.
A Megabat Family
Full of curiosity, we join a tour and meet her ‘batty’ family!
There are 13 species of megabats, eight of which are flying foxes. Jenny’s megabat family include black, grey-headed, spectacled and little red flying foxes.
For good reason, they are also known as fruit bats. Their diet is mainly nectar, pollen and fruit. Their eyes and ears search for food and they don’t use sonar like the smaller insect-eating bats.
Spectacled bats are very common here. They have a small range in the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland. Their rather unfortunate habit of foraging ground plants which exposes them to the paralysis tick.
This occurs most often between October and December when the bats are breeding.
It is a sad but common occurrence to find a paralysed or dead pregnant bat or recent mother with a live baby still attached.
Baby Bat Nursery
The Tolga Bat Hospital also has a nursery and intensive care unit, complete with an incubator and small ‘rehab’ cage to teach the babies to hang and strengthen their muscles. Go figure!
It’s not every day you see a week-old baby bat wrapped around a soft sock, being fed by a syringe through an open-ended rubber teat, which also acts as its dummy.
Hanging onto a padded sock simulates clinging onto their mother but to see their little claws cling to a dummy really gets the nurturing instincts going.
Out the window go all my fears and all I want to do was to cuddle and stroke these little helpless cutey pies.
Their fur is so soft and their gorgeous big eyes just tear at my heartstrings.
One baby slurps as it sucks on its teat during one of its two hourly milk feeds. I can’t help but laugh and think to myself they are not much different to a small human.
Microbats In The Limelight Too
Jenny introduces us to others in her fold, including a few microbats. Whilst the big-eyed, baby megabats are almost human-like in their nature, microbats are different. They are sonar or echolocators, often with large ears.
A little tube-nosed insectivorous bat has a curious but quite weird face with long tubular nostrils on the end of its nose. I look on in awe thinking that surely only a mother could love this.
Well, apparently they do, finding their own love child purely by smell amongst thousands of others in a roost.
The Northern free-tailed microbat freaks me out. This tiny thing just barely fits in the palm of a human hand and has a scrunched up face with a thin whip-like tail. The hair on the back of my neck rises and my heart starts to race.
They have a high metabolism and need regular feeds of 0.5-1 ml. They suck like crazy on tiny drops of milk and are much more active and squirmy.
One is crawling in a flat padded sleeve it calls home and I begin to regress. I have a sudden urge to check out the large adult enclosure and make my excuses to run away!
Sex in Captivity?
There are at least a dozen flying foxes hanging in a six-metre high enclosure. Jenny is elated. She notices a bat has just given birth with the baby’s umbilical cord still attached. Aaahh, the circle of life is alive and well. But the story is not so romantic.
This particular mother is a permanent resident who cannot fly.
It would appear she has been ‘impregnated’ by a male, who whilst injured and deserving of his place at the centre, was not injured enough.
Certain parts have obviously been in full working order and a few of the female bats are pregnant to this marauding male.
Sharing his love around, another flightless mother has also given birth in the last few days.
It would appear this naughty boy has been quite busy. But with a smorgasbord of fertile females in his opportunistic harem, who can blame him?
Jenny reassures us that when the baby is mature, they simply put the mother and baby out on the lawn. The baby flies off to begin a life in the wild, whilst her mother goes back to the enclosure to continue a life of pampering in style.
And so our tour comes to an end. Am I a batty convert? You bet I am. I’m off home to start knitting baby bat socks…
Much thanks to Jenny and her helpers Ashleigh and Shannon for showing us the bat ropes and giving up their precious time to make our visit a truly memorable one.
Discover Tolga Bat Hospital
The Tolga Bat Hospital Visitor Centre is open every day (except for Christmas Day) between 3 to 6 pm but it’s best to call and book first.
Love wildlife? Here’s a great post on how to photograph frogs. Looking for more things to do in Tropical North Queensland? Queensland’s north has a range of experiences, from swimming with turtles around the Low Isles to exploring undiscovered museums.