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Bat rehabilitation

Sachiko Borland, a bat rehabilitation specilaist and staff sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, holds Zac, a Hoary Bat she is nursing back to health. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard Mekkri)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Sachiko Boland, a staff sergeant in the Air Force Reserve who serves as a separations specialist at the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver, was strolling around the Colorado Renaissance Festival in the summer of 1999 in a Renaissance-period costume when she unwillingly picked up a small passenger.

Unbeknownst to her, a bat hitched a ride in the thick folds of her skirt. When a festival patron pointed out her hitchhiker, she reached her hand out to the tiny creature and her life changed forever.

“I just reached down and the bat crawled into my hand. It was the softest little creature,” she said.

Having a deep love for animals but feeling no connection to one in particular, Boland always struggled to find her spirit animal. Everyone in her life had an animal with which they deeply identified. Her sister loved wolves. One friend connected to eagles and raptors, another friend to owls. That day, Boland started her life-long relationship with bats and began learning as much as she could about the mysterious creatures.

Fourteen years passed before Boland began her three-year apprenticeship to become a certified bat specialist. After completing the apprenticeship and receiving her rabies vaccination, Boland submitted paperwork with the state of Colorado stating that she was going to begin working with a bat rescuer. She also signed an agreement that she would not keep any bats as pets.

“After all,” she said, “ bats are happiest and healthiest in the wild.”
Now a certified bat rehabilitation specialist, Boland works alongside her “bat crew,” a team of local bat rehabbers. She receives rescue requests for bats in people’s homes or yards and calls of injured bats attacked by house cats or other wildlife.

When a call about an injured or trapped bat comes to the team, a member retrieves the bat and delivers it to Boland.

She cautions that bat rescue is not for everyone.

“Individuals not trained in bat rescue should not touch bats or attempt to care for them,” Boland said. “Training and safety are very important to keep the humans and the bats unharmed when it comes to rescue and rehabilitation.”

After she receives an injured animal, her training kicks in. Boland performs an examination to ensure the major wounds are taken care of first before cleaning the bats and checking their eyes and ears, similar to triaging a human patient.

“The worst calls I have received are those of a bat stuck to freshly poured blacktop or to sticky flytraps placed outside. It is a time-intensive process to remove and treat the animal,” she said with a tear in her eye. “They do not always survive.”

Having a support system is important in times like these, Boland said. She finds comfort in other members of her bat crew.

“We have each other,” said Denise Schaefer, Boland’s friend and a licensed rehabber. “We all jump in and it really is a support group. We know how difficult it is. It’s heartbreaking to lose a bat even though you try and try and try. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

Schaefer has rehabilitated bats with Boland for nearly two years and credits her with mentoring her through many key points in the rehabilitation process.

“She is so focused and so patient,” Schaefer said. “Bats are fragile. It can take up to two hours to remove one from a flytrap. You end up with holes and tears (in their wings). It’s a very painstaking process and it takes an ungodly amount of patience and self-discipline to do what she does.”

Schaefer also learned the bond that forms in animal care and struggles to voice how special each bat can be.

“The bats all have different personalities,” she said. “They’re individual creatures and being so tiny, you want to protect them and make them happy. You don’t want them to hurt. You don’t want them to be sick.”

Boland uses a variety of techniques to treat the injured bats. She learned some methods on her own and others by engaging with other bat specialists.

“Bats really heal more when you pay attention,” Boland said. “It’s the element of human touch. People heal faster when they receive physical therapy and are stretched and massaged. It’s the same with bats. Doing that to the bats decreases the time it takes them to rehabilitate. We’ve grown back full wings in a matter of a month by performing mineral oil massages.”

Once the bats are healed and able to fly, Boland’s team returns them to within a five-mile radius of where they were found to maximize the chance they return to their colony.

Those who find the injured bats often call Boland to find out about their “Batsy” or “Vampirella” or “Pearl.” After updating them, Boland takes advantage of the time to educate them on how bats benefit the ecosystem.

Better than poisonous insecticides, bats can eat up to 1,000 bugs per hour or 8,000 to 11,000 per night. And they enrich soil through nutrient-rich waste known as guano.

“There is absolutely no maliciousness in them,” Boland said. “People assume that because of the old vampire movies, bats are out to get them. In Colorado, we have insectivorous bats. They don’t want you, they want the bugs around you. They look like little puppies and teddy bears. They’re mind-blowingly adorable.

“Bats get a bad rap,” Boland said. “Give them a chance and you will see what they do for us.”

For more information about bats or to help Boland in her rehabilitation efforts, contact the Colorado Bat Crew at www.coloradobatcrew.com, www.facebook.com/Batrescues or batrescues@gmail.com.

(Mekkri is assigned to the ARPC public affairs office.)