Animal lovers provide housing for injured critters during critical winter months.

For many homeowners, a visit from a bat is cause for consternation, even panic. But to Ann Wookey, they’re welcome guests. Wookey has a room in her basement just for bats, outfitted with ropes for roosting, mesh for climbing and other creature comforts geared to the tiny winged mammals. Wookey, who works as a keeper at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, volunteers for the Ohio Wildlife Center as one of a small cadre of certified wildlife rehabilitation workers who are trained in the care of bats.

Bats are not the only animals that the Ohio Wildlife Center, located in Powell, entrusts to home caregivers. Its hospital, the largest in the state, received more than 6,000 injured, orphaned or otherwise distressed wild animals in 2019. Many require lots of attention, so when the critters are well enough to leave but not yet ready to be released to the wild, the center often calls on the approximately 220 trained volunteers who foster rabbits, turtles, squirrels and other wild animals in their homes.

Bats end up at OWC for many reasons. Sometimes they are stunned after flying into a window. Sometimes they are orphaned, as many were last spring after a long bout of wet weather made insect-hunting difficult and caused their nursing mothers to become malnourished. And sometimes they are sick; as a species susceptible to rabies, they are quarantined for 21 days when brought into the center.

Bats arriving at OWC in the fall can pose a special challenge, as the quarantine or a long recovery period can make them miss the window of opportunity to migrate to a warmer climate or go into hibernation, depending on their species. In such cases, they must be kept inside all winter. Volunteers are especially appreciated then, says OWC education director Stormy Gibson. Caring for bats at home can be demanding and expensive—while OWC supplies food and equipment, all bat volunteers are responsible for the cost of their own rabies vaccination, which can run about $1,200.

Wookey cares for bats year-round, but in the winter she always has a stable, long-term group of guests, which this year includes three box turtles as well as six bats. Instead of full hibernation, the bats enter a state of torpor in her chilly basement; three times a week she uses a space heater to warm the room and “wake” them for hand-feeding. She sometimes follows the time-consuming meals by using a lip gloss brush to clean their tiny teeth, which are prone to decay in captivity.

When Wookey first began caring for bats, she kept them in separate cages, but after reading that they preferred group living, she brought them together. Immediately, her older bat, a female, put her wing around the younger one. “Ever since, I’ve always kept my bats together,” she says.

While Ohio’s bats are not endangered, many have suffered significant population decline, a serious ecological problem because they serve a critical role in pollinating crops and controlling insect-borne viruses like Zika and West Nile. Gibson is grateful for volunteers like Wookey, who care for creatures others shy away from. She hopes their work will “increase appreciation of these tiny, little, mighty mammals that do so much work for very little payback from us.”

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