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Raising an orphaned baby flying fox


 

 
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Vanessa Barratt, wildlife carer with Sydney Wildlife discusses baby Thomas, a six week old grey headed flying fox, orphaned when his mother was electrocuted on some inner west power lines.    

 

Every year, Sydney Wildlife carers prepare for rescue operations like this since all flying fox babies in the Sydney based colonies are born around October, and in the inner west, electrocution of the mothers is a common fate. Fortunately for Thomas, someone noticed the tiny baby attached to his dead mother, contacted Sydney Wildlife, and thanks to help from Energy Australia's cherry picker, the young bat was rescued.


 
Timid at first, Thomas is now growing well and is on target to be released back into the wild around February.
Unlike possums and many other native fauna, flying foxes do not become imprinted by their human carers, and while they receive and need considerable hands on contact with their carers with whom they become very relaxed, they do no become tame.

 
As a result, they release well, and once reunited with their own kind in a camp, want nothing more to do with humans. This is even apparent when they enter their pre-release crèche and begin to socialise with other young flying foxes..
Currently Thomas is on four 7ml feeds of a day and, since bats are placental mammals they do not have the lactose intolerance of various marsupials, and so they can be raised on cow’s milk or puppy formula. Thomas still has his tiny milk teeth (which in the wild are so important to hold the baby bat firmly attached to the mother's nipple (located in the armpit) since the baby is with the mother all the time, even when she is flying out at night to feed.

 
His adult teeth are just emerging and these help him to eat the soft fruit that is being added to his diet. He is also beginning to become nocturnal - rather than simply sleeping most of the time as do most very young animals, in the past week he has started to sleep during the day and become very active at night.

 
His wings are also growing so fast that the growth can be measured daily - an important reason for needing a calcium rich milk. They are also packed with networks of blood vessels, so that any wing damage can be repaired very fast. The lay out of the bones in the wings show very clearly that their wings are like modified human hands. There is a long, strong thumb hook on each wing and they use these to help move about and importantly to hang head up which is an essential posture to avoid the urine or faeces they release.
Not surprisingly, every baby bat Vanessa has raised has been an individual with his or her own quirky personality traits. 

 
Thomas - the first male baby is proving very different from all the young females. He is lazy, demanding, impatient, drinks and eats too quickly, rarely bothers to groom and is a 'typical brash boy'. Thomas has quickly learnt to use 'the drop the dummy routine' to gain attention. Just like humans, he will drop his dummy, then cry until someone retrieves it for him, only to repeat the cycle until he (or more likely the human!) lose interest.

 
Once the babies can fly (usually around New Year's eve) it is time for them to move to a pre-release crèche for about a month, commencing mid January. Thomas will then be in a community of some twenty young flying foxes from all over Sydney. They are tagged for identification and human contact is minimised to a single visit each day to set up their food.

 
There are squabbles about food, territory and dominance - probably more so than in the wild, where the babies would be mainly with their mothers and only limited contact with other youngsters. However, the crèche is monitored closely and time there is limited to a month, while the young ones learn how to feed themselves, integrate with other flying foxes and importantly build up their body strength and condition for when they must fend for themselves in the wild.

Vanessa has found that initially, most people, when they hear she has a flying fox with her, respond with revulsion, dislike or fear.

 
However, when they actually come face to face with the likes of Thomas and observe his intriguing and often bizarre behaviours and individual personality, their ideas change dramatically.

Their aversions to bats disappear, and many become bat converts. So these tiny little orphans are important ambassadors for all flying foxes and perhaps this role is even more important than simply saving one small life. 

 
Vanessa Barratt and Thomas the orphaned flying fox were filmed and recorded for A Question of Balance by Paul McQueen and Ruby Vincent. All images were supplied by A Question of Balance. Summary text was prepared by Victor Barry, January 2011.

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