THE BATMAN OF TIJERAS
By Barbara Bacon
When it comes to bats, it’s a small world after all. That’s how a group of 10 white-winged vampire bats made the journey from Trinidad to Daniel Abram’s guest bedroom in Tijeras, New Mexico. Along the way, they got help from Abram, executive director of Talking Talons, Dr. William Schutt of Southampton College, Long Island, New York; the Trinidad Ministry of Agriculture; the New Mexico Bat Research Institute, a herpetologist from Zoo Atlanta and a biologist working in Argentina. If it weren’t for all that help, the bats wouldn’t be alive today. And because of the bats, more than 100 chickens originally slated for extinction at a poultry farm were spared and joined the bats at Abram’s Tijeras home. This is a tale of people helping animals helping other animals, or what Abram calls symbiosis at its best.
The story begins at Zoo Atlanta, where Sue Barnard, assistant curator of herpetology, was contacted by the biologist in Argentina. He was winding up his research project on a colony of hairy-legged vampire bats and wanted someone to adopt them. Abram, who wanted to work with vampire bats, volunteered. Hairy-legged vampire bats, like the white-winged vampire bats now under Abram’s care, are a bird-feeding species. Enter the chickens. Abram contacted a large poultry farm in the Bernalillo County area and the owner agreed to donate 100 chickens, which were originally going to be destroyed because their egg production was declining. Abram eagerly agreed to take in the chickens and set to work building shelters for them and for the bats. Working with Schutt, Abram secured all necessary permits to bring the vampire bats into the country. Then Abram got some bad news: it would cost $8,000 to get the bats out of Argentina and to New Mexico. Exit the hairy-legged vampire bats, the biologist in Argentina and, Abram feared, his dream of working with vampire bats.
Let us digress a moment to consider bats and vampire mythology. The well known Dracula legends and other vampire myths evolved over hundreds of years in Europe and around the world. This mythology actually preceded the discovery of vampire bats, said Abram. Although there are 1,000 different species of bats in the world, there are only three species of vampire bats. The common vampire bat, the largest species, feeds on livestock. The wounds this bat inflicts on cattle stay open longer and are therefore more prone to infection, Abram said. This does not endear the common vampire bat to farmers and ranchers. The hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat lap up the blood of birds. Because of vampire bats’ feeding habits, that pesky vampire mythology, and the fact that vampire bats can transmit rabies, farmers and ranchers do not have warm and fuzzy thoughts about them. They tend to regard vampire bats as vermin. If you’re a vampire bat, that can be deadly.
Abram wanted to work with vampire bats because he believes all that mythology has given the bats a bad rap. Still looking for a way to make this happen, Abram learned of a planned bat eradication program in Trinidad and asked to adopt some of the white-winged vampire bats that were going to be killed. Once again, Abram secured all the necessary federal and state permits, and Schutt, permits in hand, went to Trinidad and selected the bats destined for Abram’s guest bedroom.
The tricky part was getting the bats, alive and well, from Trinidad to Tijeras and making the entire trip – including a stopover in Miami, Florida – within 36 hours, the window of time in which white-winged vampire bats can go without feeding and survive. Abram flew to Miami, met the bats’ flight from Trinidad, herded the bats through customs, got them loaded on to the return flight to Albuquerque and from the airport to his house in Tijeras. Then he introduced the 10 tired and very hungry bats to their new digs – and to a group of his rescued chickens. One of the bats, a female juvenile that Abram named Mary, was lethargic after the long journey, he recalled, “so I hand fed her from a vial that I had prepared.” The colony rejected Mary, so she moved to her own private digs. Abram has spent a lot of time with Mary to ease her adjustment. As a result, Mary has bonded closely to Abram, and he plans to use her as a goodwill ambassador, helping him to educate people about vampire bats. Abram hopes to eventually build more expansive quarters for both the bats and the chickens and, through the New Mexico Bat Research Institute, host researchers interested in working with white-winged vampire bats.
For now, Abram keeps the temperature in the bats’ room between 80 and 95 degrees and the humidity between 65 and 85 percent. White- winged vampire bats could not survive the New Mexico climate on their own, he said. The colony lives in a large flight cage that takes up most of the bedroom. Each night, Abram brings in 10 or 11 chickens and ushers them into the flight cage. The chickens go to sleep and the bats come down to feed.
Forget about Dracula. Let Abram tell you what really happens: “Because the thumbs of white-winged vampire bats are longer than the thumbs of other species, they can run and jump a couple of feet into the air. When they feed on the sleeping chickens, the bats approach from the ground. The bats like to feed on the chickens’ toes or their combs. The bats have heat sensors in their noses that tell them where the capillaries are closest to the skin surface.” The bats select an area to feed, lick the area to soften the skin, and then make a small bite, he said. The bats have two self-sharpening front incisors that make the bite, Abram explained. They take out a tiny divot of skin, about 1/8-inch in diameter.
“The bats have a grooved tongue and split lip designed to move the blood right into their mouths. They lap it up. Each bat consumes between 15 and 20 milliliters of blood each night,” he said. Contrary to myth, vampire bats do not suck blood. They have an anti-coagulant in their saliva that keeps the blood flowing while they feed. This anti-coagulant may have a medical application in the future as an aid to people who have suffered strokes,” he added.
You might think that a bat bite would wake the chickens. But here’s that symbiosis between the bats and chickens again. “Sometimes a bat will crawl under a chicken’s wing, where it’s warm,” Abram explained. “Bats have a vocalization that sounds like a baby chick, so if the chicken wakes up, she thinks it’s a baby chick” and leaves the bat undisturbed. This is a good thing. Chickens can kill a bat with their beaks. But most of Abram’s chickens came from a poultry farm, and their beaks had been cut off (a common practice at poultry farms). Since the original 100 chickens arrived, Abram has been given additional birds, including several roosters, bringing the total to 130 chickens.
“Taking care of the chickens is the most important aspect of keeping the bats,” he said. The birds eat a high protein diet and get an iron supplement in their water. Abram built the chicken coops outside adjacent to the bats’ room. Each group of chickens goes into the bat area only once a week, although the bats feed nightly.
Both the chickens and bats have adjusted well to their new lives, Abram said. After the bats arrived, he was delighted to find that one of the females was pregnant. She soon isolated herself from the colony and joined Mary, who welcomed her new roommate. On November 11, the pregnant bat gave birth to a female pup. To raise funds for the bats’ and chickens’ care, Abram and the New Mexico Bat Research Institute held a naming contest for the pup. She is Amelia, named after Amelia Earhart, and is now fully grown. Amelia, her mother and Mary have since rejoined the colony.
There has been another birth, a male pup this time. Although the issue of inbreeding in the colony does not become a concern until the fourth generation, Abram said, he has recently separated the males and females and begun an identification system of marking each bat. To preserve genetic diversity, Abram said, he will need to adopt more white-winged vampire bats and would like to begin working with hairy- legged vampire bats.
But, he stressed, he will only adopt bats that would otherwise be killed. “The only reason anyone should take an animal out of the wild is to benefit the species. As we continue to destroy our planet, we will have to make hard choices,” he said.
The New Mexico Bat Research Institute, which Abram set up around his colony of bats, continues to dedicate itself to protecting and preserving endangered species, particularly those species native to the world’s dwindling rainforests. NMBRI also assists and accepts endangered animals that have been abused or whose humans cannot provide the proper care.
Abram has begun work to convert his home into a bed and breakfast for visiting researchers and is applying for the proper zoning permits. NMBRI has developed a multi-media presentation that Abram takes to area schools. The presentation begins with an explanation of vampires and vampire myths around the world then moves into a scientific presentation of bats and how their habitats are being destroyed. Abram concludes by explaining the importance of preserving all vampire bat species and their habitats – and debunking those pesky vampire myths.
To contact Daniel Abram for more information about the bat project, the New Mexico Bat Research Institute, and/or to volunteer, his address is 55 Young Road, Tijeras, NM 87059.
Barbara Bacon is a former journalist who lives in Albuquerque and has been busy negotiating peace terms between her 6-year-old cat Chimene and her two newly adopted shelter dogs, Molly, a senior golden retriever and Boomer, a small dog of unknown origins.
The animals of the planet are in desperate peril . . .Without free animal life I believe we will lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen. -Alice Walker
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