For the first time in my life, I have bothered to visit a hospital. And it was worth it. A visit to Tolga Bat Hospital i Queensland, Australia is changing all preconceived notions about bats. If you think all bats are scary vampires, then you definitely need to come here for a visit.
Almost 40 years ago people started to find the dying flying dogs lying on the ground i Atherton Tablelands. Some were still alive, but they could not move. They were trapped in their own body. It wasn't until the 90s that people began to understand how the bats fell from the trees. The reason was ticks. The bats appeared to have been affected Tick paralysis – paralysis caused by a tick. Bats can be infected by ticks when they fly near tall grass, but it was only here in the highlands that the bats got sick, nowhere else in Australia. It also seemed that the bats were only affected for a few months in the fall. The months when the flying dogs have just had pups. During the months when the tragedy is at its greatest, the Tolga Bat Hospital and their volunteers rescue hundreds of baby bats who are dehydrated and clinging to their dying mothers on the ground. And it's in a hurry. Flying dog babies are basically constantly nursing during their first weeks, so the little ones need help quickly. Unfortunately, the mothers are usually in such bad condition that they die, but if help arrives in time, the paralysis can be cured by removing the tick. Unfortunately, the bats that fell from the trees have already become very sick, so most of the 500 or so babies that come to the hospital every year are orphans.
At the hospital, the little babies are taken care of and wrapped in soft cloth to warm and remind of the mother's body, and are hand-fed with formula in a feeding bottle for up to 4 hours a day. "Bat burritos" is the nickname for the cute little wrapped baby bats. They almost look like little puppies lying in their warming basket, with their wings hidden in the "burrito". The vast majority of them also happily suck on a pacifier, as they are used to hanging on to their mother's chest constantly in the first few weeks. A way to create security for the little orphans.
After several months of care, it is time for the babies to come out and test their wings and start practicing eating their normal food - fruit. Because flying dogs are not terrifying bloodsuckers, in nature they mainly eat nectar, fruit and pollen from trees. In fact, flying dogs (also called fruit bats) are one of the most important helpers for earthbruket here in Australia, as they fly around pollinating fruit trees and spreading seeds.
Not only orphaned babies come to the hospital, but also injured bats. Hundreds of bats get stuck with their fragile wings in barbed wire every year and can't get free. In the hot Australian sun, they often die quickly of dehydration if they cannot be quickly lifted from the thorns. Bats that come in with damaged wings usually have a tough time ahead, with very few making a full recovery. Broken bones and torn wings can heal, but the ability to fly is rarely as good as before. So some bats stay in the hospital for the rest of their lives.
It's not just flying dogs that enter the hospital, although that's the vast majority of patients. Even smaller bats get caught in nets and injure themselves, so they also get to come here and rest.
Bats are essential to our ecosystem, but they are still very misunderstood and loathed by many people. To educate and spread knowledge about these amazing animals, Tolga Bat Hospital opened a visitor center in 2009. Here, students, locals and visitors can learn more about the curious and intelligent animals and see them up close as they frolic, nibble on grapes and enjoy from being scratched. But running a hospital costs money and the initiative runs entirely on donations and revenue from the visitor center. During high season, up to eight full-time volunteers are required to keep all the babies fed and warm. Just the fruit the bats eat costs AUD 5000 a year, so any donations are welcome.
Do you also want to visit the Tolga Bat Hospital? The hospital is located in Atherton, in the highlands 9 miles west of Cairns. Visiting hours are in the afternoon between 15-18 p.m., but it is absolutely necessary to pre-book. We hadn't pre-booked it, but took a chance and were just incredibly lucky to get in. Read more and book your visit at Tolga Bat Hospital. This is a holiday highlight for the whole family!
Don't have the roads past right now? Please watch the short film at National Geographic which tells more about Tolga Bat Hospital and how the hospital is run.
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