Aviary's 6 giant bats get clean bills of health
The first bat to enter the examination room was Buoy, whose frightening 4-foot wingspan belies a gentle disposition.
“It's OK, sweetheart,” Dr. Jacqueline Saint-Onge, an associate veterinarian at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh's North Side, whispered into the 9-year-old bat's ear. “Good job. You're doing great, honey.”
Buoy was one of six Malayan flying foxes — also known as giant fruit bats — to undergo annual physical exams last week at the aviary. The exams involve days of preparations, plus a carefully choreographed routine involving no fewer than 10 Aviary employees, to assure safety and thoroughness.
“It's a little bit of a dance,” said Dr. Pilar Fish, director of veterinary medicine at the National Aviary. “We're checking them from head to toe.”
The Tribune-Review had exclusive access to the unusual exams, during which two vets and three technicians checked each bat's heart, lungs, mouth, eyes and abdomen. They studied the bat's wings, which can reach 6 feet. The bats, all females, were vaccinated and weighed. Some needed serious nail trimmings, others not so much.
“Some of them have teeth problems, one of them gets colds commonly,” Fish said. “One of them has a kidney (problem). We've even learned that one has a slight heart murmur.”
But all six bats — Amberjack, Buoy, Europa, Maroon, Nutmeg and Simone — checked out with clean bills of health.
The Aviary bats, though frightening in their size, are harmless to humans and other animals.
Globally, however, bats are known as carriers of many deadly diseases. The World Health Organization blamed the recent Ebola outbreak on African fruit bats, which the organization described as “natural Ebola virus hosts.”
The Aviary's bats were born in captivity in Florida and will live out their lives — 20 years or longer — in the Aviary. The main concern for them is not Ebola, but rabies.
“We know that bats in general can be carriers of rabies, but these are captive-born bats and have lived their whole lives in captivity, so the likelihood that they ever get it is very low,” Fish said. “But we give them a vaccination as a precaution.”
The exams lasted just over an hour for all six bats.
Handlers plucked them one at a time from an artificial tree in their enclosure — some came more willingly than others — then whisked them off to the nearby exam room.
Most of the bats remained calm. Buoy, for instance, occasionally closed her eyes, as if ready for a nap. At other times, she looked at her handlers with apparent curiosity, then wiggled and twisted her ears. She weighed in at just under 3 pounds.
“They're like little dogs,” said Sarah Shannon, the Aviary's supervisor of hospital wards. “They're actually really cute.”
The Aviary does not anesthetize the bats for the exams because doing so introduces unnecessary risks, Fish said. So they practice for days, assuring that the exams go smoothly and do not overly stress the bats.
“Great job, everyone,” Fish said to her team after the exams were completed. “That went great.”
In a temporary cage nearby, six giant fruit bats hung upside down, calmly watching the handlers and awaiting transport back to the exhibit.
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.