Meet Pandora and the Rest of the Gang…

Bats have had a lot of bad press recently – more so than usual!  There have always been sections of society that find them unattractive, possibly even scary…but could the humble bat be the answer to our problems rather than the cause…Juanita Shield-Laignel visited Jersey Zoo to find out.

I love animals and flora and fauna at large, so was really excited to be invited to meet Head of Mammals Dominic Wormell and Zoo Research Manager Eluned Price who is not only Dom’s co-worker but also his equally dedicated to wildlife, wife.  Eluned explained.

“I’ve been living in Jersey permanently since 1995, Dom since 1989 and we met here in the zoo. I   came over from the UK to do some research on our first woodland group of free ranging monkeys. Dom had been here about year as a Keeper. I then went to Brazil to study monkeys for a while and then came back and stayed…the rest as they say is history. So now I’m managing research for the zoo.”   

And as if to underline Eluned talking about free ranging monkeys, as we approached the bat house – Dom pointed out silvery marmosets feeding on un-ripe cherries in the trees above. “They roam free, exactly the same as they would in the wild – they can go down the beach if they want to.” Dom laughed. A White Necked Crane from the neighbouring plot joined in!

After watching them frolic eating cherries in the trees and a lesson in the breading habits of marmosets, (did you know they are the only true monkey that have twins as a breeding strategy, no I didn’t either) we finally alighted the bat cave!

Dom was really keen to explain the physical building and I was delighted to listen…I confessed to loving Grand Designs especially the cob houses and hand-built wooden ones. “Being a charity, we never have huge budgets, so this is our recycled modified bat house.  Originally built in 2011, it’s just tyres, each rammed with 3 wheelbarrows of earth and weighing around 80 kilos – so they are not going anywhere, stacked on top of each other, insulated with straw and then mud plaster containing all sorts – horsehair, keeper hair, orangutan hair to bind it all together, slapped on top and then painted with lime.  Lime is used on cob because it breaths – with ordinary plaster the straw would just rot.”

Dom continued “Lots of stuff was donated and as a community project, around 200 volunteers got involved. We took ideas from ‘Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day’ and as you mentioned ‘Grand Designs’ including using the bottoms of old wine bottles stacked up as windows.” We joked it must have been fun draining the bottles first, but Eluned interjected that most of them had been donated.  We went inside and Dom pointed out how the different coloured bottles twinkle in the sunlight and a small glass covered panel showing the straw underneath. I got the feeling Dom is almost as proud of the building as he is of the animals inside! 

He explained “The reasons we built it like this is because 1. We had very little money, 2. We wanted the community to be stake holders in this project – they are not ‘our’ bats…nature is for everyone, and 3. and probably most importantly – if we had built a big crystal palace with oil heating – what sort of statement does that make about sustainability? The reason these species and so many other are endangered is because ‘we’ (the human collective) are using their resources unsustainably! So we built this with rubbish to make people think about recycling and bestowing the ‘things’ we have with an intrinsic value.” That all made perfect sense to me.

“And it was an enormous amount of fun – towards the end of the build we had a big mud plastering party, we had a BBQ afterwards for all involved and there was a real sense of creativity and achievement. Humans in general have lost so many of these, old, often better ways.” That made sense to me too.

On to the main attraction – “The Livingstone fruit bats – the big, darker ones – are from the Comoros islands, small islands at the top the Mozambique channel, and the smaller brownish bats are Rodrigues bats from Rodrigues Island which is about the same size as Jersey actually at 42 sq miles, a tiny little island in the Indian ocean and very remote. In 1970 when Gerald Durrell started the breeding programme, there were only 70 Rodrigues bats left in the wild. Gerald brought some here and some to Mauritius in an effort to breed and repopulate the forest, but the forests needed to be regenerated too and this has largely happened in Rodrigues Island – the forest has been recovered in the uplands, water has come back and so the people have benefited too, and most importantly there is now a wild population of about 20k. Because of this success we aren’t breeding Rodrigues bats at the moment – we don’t need to.”

“The Livingstones are a different matter. There has been a lot of deforestation in the Comoros in the last 20 years, and consequently the rivers have dried up and the people are suffering. So we need to keep a ‘safeguard’ population here but also build the habitat back. With the crazy weather events we are seeing, a little island community of only 100 bats could be wiped out with one fire or an extreme cyclone.  So we are still breeding Livingstones and have had a great year with 10 babies so far.”

I felt very privileged to be invited into the enclosure. “This is the maternity area and hospital – here we have Pandora and her baby. They all have names and some of the keepers know them all.  They do have distinguishing marks, such notched ears or a particular pattern or coloration on their back, but they are also chipped and logged and assigned a house number.  All the mammals begin with M – so N’Pongo – our world-famous Gorilla was the first, so she was M1.  This female is subdominant – she has a break on her leg so we’ve had to separate her off for a while – her name is Iris – would you like to feed her?” Of course I accepted.

Eluned gave me a long pole with a small basket on the end containing banana – Iris and several others suddenly became very interested.  I was fascinated to watch her grab the basket and pull it up so she could get her head right in and her tongue right to the bottom to get every single morsel. 

Listening back to the recording at this point is quite amusing because I can be heard talking to the bats as if they are puppies or children saying thigs like ‘hello beautiful girl – gorgeous girl – oooo your loving that nana’ and so on – I wondered if Dom and Eluned thought I was a ‘nana’!  But then another turned up just behind Eluned and grabbed her plait for attention…Eluned turned to look at her and I realised just how playful and interactive they are with those they trust. I exclaimed that their faces are very sweet, like upside down bears of lemurs and Dom carried on explaining “They are upside down puppies basically – well their babies are called pups! Fruit bats are amazing seed disperses covering huge areas, more than birds.”

Eluned carried on “We are determined to help people understand that nearly everything you hear about bats is rubbish. We are planning some interactive studies with the public – trying to establish exactly what it is that some people don’t like about certain species – the bats are a good example. We are going to have a student asking those that don’t want to come in, why they don’t want to come into the enclosure, do they think it’s going to be dark and they don’t want to be in the dark or do they imagine it’s scary and that bats may fly into their hair – we can’t get to people to change their attitude unless we know exactly what is bothering them.  We hope to be able to better understand and be able to persuade people that they are actually cute and fascinating and worth saving and a very vital part of our ecology.”   

A mother with a baby on her belly appeared next to my shoulder – they seemed quite inquisitive “This is so joyful!” exclaimed I, also commenting on how beautiful their eyes are. It was really amazing to see them so up close and personal.

Eluned explained “This baby is about 2 months old – it’s peak birthing season from April to July.”

Dom interjected – “And this is Kidogo – he broke his thumb so has been separated whilst he heals –– they have amazing feet and toes with tendons that lock out so when they are hanging, they don’t use much energy.” I asked Dom how long they live – “About 30 years and some European micro bats can live up to 35, over there in the medical enclosure is the only wild caught female we have left now, called Gem – she is nearly 30 now.” 

“We created this big doughnut” Dom gesticulated to demonstrate the circular nature of the enclosure, “40 metres long and 15 m across so one fly around gives them a good 100 metres to travel – they’ve been seen doing as many as 5 loops, that’s half a kilometre – in the wild they go quite a way up into the mountains in a night.”

A couple of robust boys were having a bit of a tussle nearby, so I asked if they ever fought. Dom shared as he gently extended the wingspan of the Livingstone’s bat in front of us, “They box with their thumbs, this is Echo – he is a non-dominant male – you can see here he has marks in his wings where they box with their thumbs, but on the whole, they are so clever and intelligent, the mothers will leave babies in a crèche area whilst they go off to feed – some bats have been observed to help others give birth…it’s really quite extraordinary.” This all sounded amazing and sensitive and nothing like the myths that we hear so I just had to ask…

What about vampire bats?

Dom was happy to answer, “These guys eat fruit and veg, our local bats in Jersey eat insects, but yes in Central and South America, of the 1,360 species of bats there are 3 tiny vampire bat species that feed off cattle, but it’s not like a great big bite on the neck as popular culture would have you believe – they make a tiny little incision and have an anticoagulant in their saliva, they then feed on the blood flow, storing some for their young which they regurgitate when they get back to the nest. They only feed on larger herbivorous mammals not on humans. 

Eluned came in at this point “There really is a lack of understanding, knowledge and education around bats – it’s frustrating, we work with them every day, know how beautiful they are, how individual they are and how important they are ecologically and to see those myths being perpetuated all the time – it’s really important that we don’t demonise bats in this way, it’s wrong and doing these studies, studying people and how they interact, is a really important way to understand how they perceive different species and the way they feel about nature overall – the more at one with nature people feel the more likely they are to change their behaviour and do more to protect it.

Dom agreed “Yes, the more connected you are to nature at large the better and Durrell has taken this on as a vital concept – it’s relatively new in conservation terms.” 

Eluned carried on “That’s why we have to make people care. We can say – ‘oh this species of bats are endangered’ – and many will just shrug and say ‘oh that’s a shame’ but by bringing that emotional aspect into play – ‘these animals are vital to the well-being of the whole planet’ – then people feel protective.” 

This is a subject close to my own heart so I was glad of the in, “Yes – we have become so disconnected, disparate – the urban jungle has got a lot to answer for.” 

Dom answered my plea “Being in nature is good for our wellbeing – people who are spending time in nature, who feel more connected to it are generally happier and healthier – local schools are starting to incorporate more nature in their environments and teaching. It is the only way forward.”

He continued “This pandemic has demonised bats even more – fingers have been wrongly pointed – people need to realise that factory farms and crowded animal markets are breeding grounds for mutations of viruses where hundreds of animals are kept in un-natural ways so have depressed immune systems.  We need to leave nature be and help to restore it because ultimately that will lesson pandemics – that is the answer, it’s not ‘let’s keep modifying vaccines, keep vaccinating everyone, it’s about re-building a natural environment.  

I agreed and said, “It’s all a symbiotic eco system isn’t it, and the more you strip elements out, the more dangerous other elements become, conversely, the more natural, how it is suppose to be, that it is, then viruses et al become attenuated – makes perfect sense to me.”

Dom agreed “Exactly that – nature will not work to have epidemics and plagues, it always runs in checks and balances, that’s the way things have evolved – as soon as we have upset the balance it goes wrong – we use no chemicals pesticides here in the bat enclosure and everything works in harmony, there are loads of insects amongst the plants and like the rainforests where there is little soil, most of the organic matter is wrapped in biome above, we have no soil here just AstroTurf donated by Les Quennevais hockey pitch!.” 

We got onto the subject of human diets, Dom said, “Like fruit bats we have no need to make our own vitamin C as we evolved to eat lots of fruits and vegetables.  This shows me that we are essentially herbivores – if people ate more plants and less meat and processed foods, more of the forests would be intact. Eluned and I are plant-based as we feel it is doing what is best for ourselves and the environment – if you eat an intensively produced chicken – it’s not just a chicken you are eating – it’s also the ‘embodied land’ and energy in a chicken which is about 6 square meters of rainforest, because you have to grow the food to feed the chickens! It just doesn’t make sense.”

Now that we had set the world to rights Dom invited me to enter the hospital enclosure to meet Pandora and her baby and oh my what an amazing experience.  Dom gave me a banana for her and she headed my way – I was able to get really close to her and at one stage she even reached out to me so she could get said banana – her baby hanging from her tummy – she seemed completely unphased. It was an experience that will sustain me for a very long time to come.

Eluned had to leave us for another appointment, so my final few questions were directed at Dom.

What’s the future for the bats?  

“Bats are really important. ‘Eco system engineers’ we need to restore habitats, keep breeding – we need bats if we’re to stop pandemics, stop climate change and stop biodiversity loss – bats really are a key species to that, rather than being demonised as something that is dangerous and causing this, they could be our saviour – bats are our way out of this, we need to look after them, they are our friends; flying cuddly puppies. We also need more planting of forests – agroforestry techniques, plant trees, bring the bats back, bring the rivers back and thus help the human community, all these things work hand in hand. When you think that 20% of all mammal species on earth are bats – it just shows you how important they are to the eco-structure of all other living things, so we must protect them, guard them with our lives as they will help preserve ours.”

 What can we do locally to help?

“Remember bats are our friends so leave areas for them in your garden – 2 meter square pollinator patches – more of us are aware of how important our pollinators are to the survival of all – our bats locally are insectivorous so feed them – restore declining habitats, if insects are in decline, bat numbers will go down too. Look after roadside vergers with new Branchage technique – in an island the size of Jersey that will give us 500 miles of linear nature – most of all change your life a little bit – things we eat, the way we live our lives, try and live more sustainably – make a difference.”

What can we do on a larger scale?

“Get involved with projects that need help – re-wilding, plant trees in Brazil – what a great thing to do, projects in the West Indies all these places that need help… come on board, be part of the solution. Become a member of Durrell – go on our website for more info. Get involved – do this together, they are not ‘our’ animals, not ‘our’ projects, they are everybody’s; take ownership, connect people with wildlife and be stewards for the future….” 

Be stewards for the future!