Fixing flying foxes: Tolga’s Bat Hospital

By Natsumi Penberthy 10 April 2015
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For more than 20 years, volunteers led by Jenny Maclean have been ­helping flying-foxes afflicted by tick paralysis on the Atherton Tablelands.

IT’S STEAMY IN the summer heat of Queensland’s Wet Tropics. In this stifling humidity, 23-year-old Marsten Jones, an environmental science student from Nashville, USA, moves around a white-tiled bathroom full of sleeping flying-foxes.

A squeaked protest follows his progress as he tugs cloths from cages. Shafts of early morning light rouse the resident orphans of the Tolga Bat Hospital, near Atherton, Queensland. The trick, says Marsten, is to make sure one unhappy baby doesn’t have a domino effect on the other pups.

“Alfie’s always been weak,” he says, pointing at the tiny specimen clinging to his T-shirt. The bat blinks big chocolate-coloured eyes at us. “He caught pneumonia early on, so we give him a bit of extra attention.”

The loudest and scrawniest babies ride around the hospital in ‘sookies’ – small cloth sleeping sacs ­safety-  pinned to the T-shirts of the latest crop of live-in ­volunteers. As Marsten moves around the room he helps the neediest babies clamber out and onto his shirt, where they hang upside down from the loose fabric. Hungry bats are then swaddled tight in old T-shirts and placed in a box, ready for a feed.

Hospital saves tick-afflicted bats

The bat hospital has grown in a sprawling fashion from what was once simply the brick home of its founder Jenny Maclean. In the mid-1980s, a localised problem of bats coming into contact with native paralysis ticks was noticed on the Atherton Tablelands, 50km south-west of Cairns. Jenny, now 60, moved to Atherton to start a physiotherapy business shortly after finishing university in Brisbane, and, in 1990 she wasn’t involved with bats at all.

“Somebody put a story in the paper looking for people to help. They had 300–400 babies that [needed] homes,” says Jenny, who has a habit of looking pointedly through her wire-rimmed glasses at the jobs that need doing, before directing volunteers to take care of them. “I just thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’” she says with a shrug. And she’s being looking after bats ever since.

In 2002 the hospital became a not-for-profit company, and today hosts up to seven live-in ­volunteers and regular drop-in locals. In years when cyclone-
affected breeding booms have left many babies ­orphaned, the complexities of rearing them have meant a huge coordinated effort. Normally, though, Jenny’s team deals with about 1200 flying-foxes each year.

The paralysis ticks usually only cause mild irritation to humans and native wildlife, but bats are ­particularly sensitive; once paralysed, their body functions begin to fail and they can’t eat or drink.

Jenny says that in other parts of Queensland, you don’t hear of more than 4–6 bats a year coming into care with tick paralysis. But the Tolga area, 5km north of Atherton, is a hotspot for the disease. Under a bustling seasonal colony of spectacled flying-foxes, gloved volunteers can pick paralysed bats up from the ground. The climate suits the ticks, says Jenny, and they are rife in the cat and dog populations here.

Her brick home has grown with the support of grants and funding from conservation groups. Here and there extensions jut out of the building: living quarters for volunteers, a visitors centre part-funded by the AG Society in 2007, and three huge aviary-style cages (for microbats, juveniles and adult bats).

Hospital facilitates bat research

Aside from rehabilitation, the hospital also facilitates research. Right now, they’re collecting ticks and bat flies for CSIRO; working with a vet who’s doing a PhD on tick paralysis; and helping scientists trial solar-powered, satellite-tracking collars for newly released bats.

Jenny’s team also cares for bats that get snagged in barbed wire or fruit netting, and they talk to school groups. Education is another important objective, says Jenny, because flying-foxes are not popular with Atherton locals, particularly the fruit farmers, whose crops they sometimes target.

Although the spectacled flying-fox is listed as vulnerable nationally, huge seasonal colonies descend on a small area here, and many people view them as pests. Colourful local politician Bob Katter has been vocal about his support for a “serious culling program” to limit the spread of bat-borne Hendra virus, which is potentially fatal to humans and horses.  

Jenny says getting people to understand the value of the bats to local ecosystems, and the duty we have to protect them as a declining species, is an uphill battle.

“I rang someone the other day and I said ‘I’m looking for gloves for working with baby flying-foxes’, and the first thing he said was ‘Look, excuse me, just why would you bother? Aren’t they a pest?’”

Jenny and CSIRO scientist Dr David Westcott argue that bats are a keystone species essential to pollination and seed dispersal in north Queensland forests. Inadequate information is one of the biggest issues at the moment, says David, who was given funding for a national monitoring program, which began in 2013.

“Flying-foxes are under pressure from ticks, culling, heat stress, habitat loss and barbed wire,” David says. “If there’s a problem…it’ll be death by a thousand cuts.”

The hospital has earned a global reputation, featuring in many magazines and documentaries from Taiwan to Finland. “I don’t spend time actively looking for volunteers; they find us,” Jenny says. Today, she has overseas volunteers from the UK, USA and Germany, as well as Australians from Bathurst and Kununurra.

Outside the hospital laundry, Louise O’Brien, 52, a volunteer with wildlife rescue group WIRES, sits feeding Weasley, one of the orphans. After 25 years of taking in roos, wombats and possums, Louise is now coordinating the WIRES bat program in central-western NSW, and she’s here to learn about flying-foxes.

How to keep bats happy

Bats are difficult because it’s not always obvious how to keep them happy, says Louise, as she coos at the swaddled baby and refills a syringe with milk. The older babies can be the trickiest. When weaning begins, they sometimes get frustrated and grumpy, she says. Once weaned, they move into aviaries to learn to fly, climb and socialise – and within a few months they are released.   

The hospital’s latest development is a new two-­storey block, built with money from Jenny’s inheritance. With this addition, her kitchen will cease to be the 24-hour feeding centre. Jenny hasn’t had a quiet kitchen for decades, but she has no regrets. “The bats are delightful to work with,” she says. “And I like building. I made all these cages myself. If I hadn’t started work on the bats I wouldn’t have had anything to build.”


The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #120.