Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bad Luck Comes In Threes

Halfway through my time at Bat Reach in Kuranda, QLD, I got pooped on by a turkey. I was cleaning out sugar glider cages, singing AFI songs to keep myself awake in the early morning. I am not a morning person. The cages were small, and provided no cover from a tree towering behind me. My first thoughts after feeling the warm splat across my shoulder was "Thank God it wasn't my hair!" I imagined eating the turkey for dinner as revenge, but then decided Australian bush turkey wouldn't likely be the Thankgiving feast I was picturing. I changed shirts and washed the splattered drops of goo off my body. Every time I cleaned the sugar glider cages after that day, I scared the turkeys away first. Erika, the other volunteer, joked that "bad bad luck comes in threes" after laughing at how angry my already grumpy morning face got. I really wasn't that angry. Only annoyed and sleepy.

That evening, several volunteers from around town came to help cut fruit for the flying foxes. I had been on a walk on the rainforest trails that afternoon, and arrived back to the house as the work began. Trying to pitch in quickly, I grabbed the largest bunch of bananas I saw to begin peeling them. Suddenly, I saw it- a spider. Not just a spider, but a HUGE spider, on the bananas in my hand, and it was coming straight for my hands, obviously going in for the kill! As any rational person would do, I threw the bananas. Only, I didn't just throw them. I tossed them across the room with all of my might, as far as my strength would take them. There was no aim, or really any thought to it- only instinct to not die. The bananas landed with a mushy and hard thud directly on top on Pam's feet as my terrified scream faded into humiliation. (Pam is the owner of Bat Reach) My face flushed tomato red as my eyes began watering from the fright of the moment and realization that I just hit an elderly woman with spider infested bananas. Everyone was confused as to what the ruckus was about, and why I would do such a thing from seeing a harmless spider. I futilely attempted explaining what had happen, but gave up and excused myself to regain composure.

The next morning, Erika reminded me once more that bad luck comes in threes. I hoped not. There are only so many times in your life when you can get away with throwing spider infested bananas at the elderly. I did my chores while keeping strict tabs on each wild turkey and checked every single banana throroughly before picking it up. As I went to take out the trash, I realized I was safe. I had completed everything with nothing bad happening. I placed the trash bag into a pile under the deck as it began to rain. But I was under the deck. There was no rain falling outside. I looked up to see urine flowing from the genitals of a little jack Russell terrier above me. My personal rain cloud was dog pee. I ran inside to take a long shower and informed Erika that she had been correct. My bad luck was officially over!

Awesome frog sitting on the fruit bins. Erika took this picture. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Kuranda Rainforest Trails

Just beside Bat Reach was a small trail that led into the rainforest surrounding Kuranda. Halfway through my stay there, I decided to start spending my afternoon hours hiking all the trails. There was only one that I wasn't able to hike. After Pluto arrived, I sent most of my afternoons feeding him instead. The first few steps into wilderness take you over a small creek bridge and then to a map outlining each trail. I took a picture of the map in order to keep my bearings. It wasn't meant for this blog, so it isn't the best picture, but it still gives a general picture.

There were four main paths outside of the city: Jumrum Creek Conservation Park, The Jungle Walk, The River Walk, and Barron Falls Walk. (Only two are in the picture above in blue and yellow.) The last was too far to make there and back without missing a feeding or chore. The Jumrum was the path I had already started on. I only walked it on the first day, but walked it again a few more times during my time in town. I added on the other paths as I had the time. Naturally while going through town I walked the orange and purple trails as well.

There were many birds in the rainforest. I never saw a single one, but boy were they loud. In the evening, insects competed to heard instead. Only the kookaburras overpowered the constant hum of twilight sound. Let me correct myself- I did see one bird- the wild turkey. They were everywhere. There were also tiny lizards along the trees and scurrying away as I progressed down the path. There were other tiny critters running my my feet, but I didn't let myself investigate whether they were cockroaches, spiders, or worse. All of the paths were very obvious and most were paved, so the walking was pretty easy with no damage to the rainforest.

Anyone know what this is in the tree? It wasn't an animal. Maybe fungi or a nest of some kind?

Maybe this is the same thing? 

The path eventually opened up to the Jumrum Creek and twisted right over it to get across. The first time I came down there the water was clear and beautiful. The last time I went down there it had just rained making the water too murky to see through at all. My mind just kept repeating all of the crocodile horror stories I had heard before moving here as I eyed how close the path was to the dark water. Crocodiles can leap out of nowhere, grab you by the torso, drag you underwater to drown, and eat you in pieces over days. Pam had reassured me that crocs lived at least 30 minutes farther north. That was too close to risk in my mind. Anytime I couldn't see all the water, I high tailed it straight back to the house.

Blue dragonfly

I felt a bit spoiled to have stairs on such an easy walk.

The Jumrum Creek trail came to an end with a fork in the path. To the left, the path led all the way back to the center of town, mostly following neighborhood streets. Straight ahead went into the Jungle Walk. 

One thing I love about North Queensland is all the butterflies. Most of them are huge and bold, but fly away before I can get a picture.

These lizards are absolutely everywhere.


When I'm in the outdoors, I like to look up at all the trees swaying in the wind. As I progressed down the Jungle Walk, my eyes readjusted to something much closer. A giant spider! I'm not even being a sissy on this one. It was truly huge! What's worse, it made it's evil torture web directly above the path I had to take. I stood in front of it at a calculated distance of how far I thought it might be able to jump. Every time I'd take a step forward all I could picture was it leaping off the web, and crawling at lightening speed down my shirt, biting and writhing as it crawled on my skin. Irrational? Probably. But keep in mind that I don't know really anything about the spiders here, other than that they are large and most cause pain, if not death. I finally told myself that I had to pass it. I prepared myself and then sprinted full speed under it. Everything in me just wanted to keep running and get out of there. However, the idea of it jumping on my back, where I might not feel at first made me glance backwards to check that it was still there. It was silly how much relief flooded through me to see that stupid spider still up there. I like spiders... You know, in books and television, far away from me. I'll even hold them if I know they're harmless. But put me next to a head sized spider that can run faster than me and might be deadly, I freak out.

Since it was difficult to take a picture of the web, I doodled this fine work of art to illistrate the horror that stood in front of me. (The brown things on either side are trees) Unfortunately, I couldn't display the evil clench of its jaws or anticipatory twitch of its legs accurately in this format.

This was the actual picture of the spider. Turned out to be a harmless Golden Orb. Still not something I'll need to ever see again in my life.

Soon after passing the spider, I heard a loud buzzing sound behind me. It was such a large sound, I assumed it was a dragonfly or similar interesting, harmless animal. Nope! I turned around and found my head directly in the middle of a mosquito swarm. I decided this trail was a booby trap or torture, so practically ran to the next trail, The River Walk.

When I first approached the river, I noticed two large dark circles swimming opposite of each other in parallel lines. It took me a minute to figure out that these circles weren't oddly behaving rays, but rather a shadow cast from the zip line tour of the rainforest. 

Pink fuzzy tree?

I love the moss covered picnic tables!

I found another spider web, at least 10 feet high, but once again, it didn't show in the photographs. There are only a few suspended leaves to show where it stood beside me.

I also refused to get close to this river- even more of a chance of a croc!

I loved the way the trees and their roots intertwined.

Okay so, the "Rainforest Trails" were nothing like trekking through wild unmarked jungles, but it was still pretty cool. Wish I had a better camera for pictures, but hopefully this gave a good enough visualization. Moral of this blog: Always be aware of crocodiles and spiders in Australia!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bat Reach (Pluto the Squirrel Glider)

The day after I went to the Great Barrier Reef was the day I was to move from the hostel to Bat Reach. Bat Reach was situated in a small town called Kurana, a little under an hour from Cairns to the West. I was told that the bus was the best way to get there. The front desk attendants at the hostel said that the bus stop was directly behind the mall, and the best way to get there was to walk through the mall. Check out time at the hostel was 9:00am, but the bus wouldnt arrive to Cairns until 11:30am. So, I left the hostel at 9:00, after my free pancake breakfast of course, and went over to find the bus stop. It didn't take long before I was hungry again and bored. However, there was no way I was going to drag my bags all through the mall. It was steaming with humidity outside which just made me want to leave my spot that much more. There was one man working at the train station adjacent to the bus stop. I went up to him, dragging the luggage behind me, and asked if I could possibly keep them out of view in the station for a few minutes while I ran into the mall for food. He said that someone might think a "terrorist" left them and he didn't want to deal with that whole mess today. (Apparently these false alarms had happened before?) Instead, he let me slide the luggage into a locked closet while I shopped. I thanked him and ran into the mall.

The first thing I came to was a $2 bin of clearance books. On top of the bin was a book about beauty based selection in the animal kingdom and how that affects the Darwinian theory of evolution. Well, of course I had to have something to read for the remainer of my wait. I bought the book and headed over to the food court. I was still craving tuna sushi from the previous day. The very first food court restaurant had that exact thing. I grabbed a container of six along with a coke and went back to get my stuff.

The wait was much less of a hassle with a craving satisfied, caffeine in my system, a good book to read, and large bags to prop my feet up on. I was almost disappointed when the bus arrived. Thankfully, the colorful animal pictures and giant "Kurana - village in the rainforest" writings let me know I was definately getting on the correct bus. There was no storage under the bus, so I had to lift the bags up, and then scoot them to a handicap seat, facing the middle. 

Kurana is high in the hills of the rainforest. The roads twist and turn, reminding me of West Virgina. The bus driver also reminded me of West Virginia, as he drove the fastest speed he could without us tumbling down the hillside. My right arm recieved a great workout by holding onto the bags to keep them from slipping or falling over each turn every other second. I think this distracted me enough to keep me from becoming car sick.

The town seemed specialized for tourists who wanted a day trip into a rainforest. It was packed full of souvenir shops and expensive animal experience areas. Pam, the owner of Bat Reach, had told me to just ask around town for directions to Bat Reach once I got there. I felt a little odd asking random strangers, so I found an information booth instead. The lady there said "go down the street, behind the fire station, and down the hill." She said I'd see a sign for it when I got there. I managed to find the hill easily enough. There was a tall fence along the side of the pathway. A few houses down was a sign for Bat Reach hanging on a gate, but it said closed and nobody was around. I sat my bags there and went a bit father down the path, but didn't spot any more signs. 

My phone had already died. I was too tired the night before to think to charge it. Since Jenny (from Tolga Bat Hospital) had given me Pam's number, I still had the piece of paper it was written on. The first people to walk down the path after me were a young Australian couple. I asked if I could borrow a phone to make a very quick call. The guy handed over his smartphone, and waited as I made the call. Ring... Ring... "Hello" "Hi Pam" "This is Erika" I fumbled an apology and began to hang up as Erika quickly explained that she was a volunteer for Pam. The number was correct. I explained where I was and she popped out of a house at the very end of the path to come get me. I returned the phone to the very kind strangers and hauled my luggage the rest of the way downhill. 

It turns out that Bat Reach is always closed, as it is a private residence with cages built on the property. Most rehabilitation places in Australia are like that. If desired, people can schedule a visit to see all of the animals in care and learn more about them. 

Erika led me up a long set of stairs leading to the deck, inside the house, and another set of stairs (actually more like a ladder) to the loft, where our bunk beds were. I was so happy to have Erika's help with the bags! Otherwise, I probably would have just left them outside. The deck was rather high up and had a dining table under a nice tin roof. It was apparently great for bird watching, though my eyesight would only occasionally offer a bird shaped color blob. Inside the two glass sliding doors the house appeared to be a cabin. The windows were more like blinds made out of glass, opened to let air flow through the house. Pam, the owner, stayed in the only bedroom downstairs. Erika and I stayed in the loft which was filled with two bunk beds, two night stands, and many short bookshelves. 

Two small dogs greeted us inside the house. The first was a male jack russell terrier named Tori. He liked to lick peoples faces by lunging his tongue straight for their mouth. The second dog was Lulu, a cream colored long hair chihuahua. She did not like to be touched around her legs, but insisted to be lifted up onto the couch anytime anyone sat down.

Erika was French, but grew up in the Canary Islands. Because of that she was fluent in three languages. When we first met, she described herself as a nudist hippy. She had already traveled to several countries to rehabilitate animals. She spoke mostly of her experiences with wolves, sharks, and seals. Erika had already been at Bat Reach for a month and was planning to stay for many more months. She had convinced Pam to let her care for an orphaned pinkie swamp wallaby during her time there. She also was caring for an orphaned spectacled flying fox. Out of everyone I have met so far in Australia, I got along with her the best. This may be because she didn't use unfamiliar slang and understood that I was not up for conversation before the afternoon, especially without caffeine.

Pam's car pulled into the drive way as I got settled into the loft. Pam was an elderly women. She communicated primarily with moans and hums. This took a while to learn. I would say, "Pam, did you give the gliders worms today?" She'd reply a low "Mmm". I would clarify, "Is that a yes or no?" "Hmm" she'd answer in a slightly higher pitch. Eventually, I figured out the differences. Moans were usually negative, while hums were usually positive. Pam watched the news every single morning and evening, even though she didn't seem to ever like watching it. I enjoyed watching the news since it had been a while since I last was able to do so. 

My first day or two at Bat Reach I was close to useless. The plane, hostel, and full day of swimming had exhausted me! I spent that time learning how to do everything from Erika. Each morning Erika and Pam would be bright eyed and awake by 7:00am. Pam would watch the news while Erika would feed her two orphans. I would open my eyes, try to focus on something to keep them open, pull off the covers, and so on, until I could finally reach the downstairs around 8:00am. I never got a full nights sleep, so this process never became easier. How Erika remained happy every morning despite round-the-clock orphan feeding is a compete mystery to me. 

Once I was awake, the orphans were fed, and the news was starting to repeat itself, we would head outside to begin work. Behind Pam's house were two large dog kennel like chain link and open mesh cages. One was for males while the other was for females. There were wild bats outside of the cages too, probably holding out for some free food. Around the side of the house were more outdoor covered cages. The first contained a couple older orphaned flying foxes. The next three contained sugar gliders. A "chook pen" (chook=chicken) was built into the side of the house as the path led down to the garage. Within the garage were isolated fruitbats, sugar gliders, and a squirrel glider. 

The lady fruit bats (and some wild bats outside of the cage.)

The gentlemen fruit bats

Two small glider cages, with a wild turkey on top, and one large glider cage.

Fruit bat isolation cage (There were many more cages in the garage. This was just the only one I took a picture of because the lighting wasn't good enough.)

Before I go any further I should probably explain the animals just a bit. Australian bats are separated into two groups: the megabats (fruit eating) and the microbats (insect eating). There are four species of megabats which are flying foxes. So all flying foxes are fruit bats, but not all fruit bats are flying foxes. Gliders at a rehabilitation center may also cause confusion. Gliders are a marsupial that can be kept as pets in America. However, they are wild, native animals in this region of Australia. Most Australians I've met are pretty against the fact that their wild animals are our pets. (Most popular birds and reptiles are also Australian.) Australians are not allowed to keep many of these animals as pets, so it seems wrong to them that we do. 

Erika and Pam usually rotated cleaning the large bat cages. I did all of the other smaller cages along the side of the house and into the garage. Since all of the animals at Bat Reach were nocturnal, we only needed to clean in the morning and feed at night. The cages were simple enough to clean. Remove buckets/dishes, refill water, replace newspaper, and sweep up any additional messes. There were around ten separate cages to clean. Glider bedding was changed once a week or when it became dirty. Once the large cages had been finished, I would collect the buckets, numbering twenty or so, and wash them out thoroughly. If Erika wasn't doing the large bat cages, she helped with cleaning the small cages. I spent most of my time, at first, out back and in the garage with the gliders when I wasn't trying to catch up on sleep. It was difficult getting good pictures of them since they hid and slept all day.

All morning tasks were completed by noon at the latest. Pam would often use this time to go pick up fruit. The twenty buckets had to be filled to the top with chopped fruit for the bats to eat, and Pam only gave them the best. Several local grocery stores donated extra produce each week. While Pam was away, I slept. When she returned Erika and I would help unload her car, sort through the produce, and bring the best of it upstairs. 

At 4:00pm every day volunteers would begin to arrive. There were usually one to four volunteers, nearly all were middle-age to elderly women who were close friends with Pam. We would set out buckets, cutting boards, knifes, and a trash bin along the bench (kitchen counter top), and everyone would begin cutting fruit. It often took just over an hour to fill every bucket. A vitamin powder and fruit juice was poured on top before serving it to hungry bats.

The buckets were hung up on metal hooks attached to the top of each cage. Some impatient bats, like the two in the above picture, would begin eating before the buckets could be hung. All bats ate upside down, using their thumbs and mouth to keep ahold of the food. Bananas were donated most often, so they got sick of them quickly.

Sugar gliders were fed next. They got plates of food fit for a king. Each dish contained various nuts and oats, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, corn, etc. Honey would be drizzled on top for an extra treat. Chickens got a mix of leftovers from the gliders. 

Usually Pam would sit on the porch with her evening volunteers, socialize, smoke, and drink wine as the sun went down. Sometimes they would have dinner with us all outside. Eventually, the volunteers would leave and the evening news would come on. This tv was almost entirely used for the news. I tried to watch Mythbusters on it one afternoon and she made me turn it off. At 8:00pm, it was time to feed the microbats. Microbats were kept in an office/storage room near the back of the house. There were three of them. They were all unreleasables and had to be hand-fed. One (Simba) had been in care for over ten years with a severely misshapen wing. Simba was the only microbat who was willing to eat for me, so I always fed him. (All of the animals had names, but I had a hard time remembering most of them.) I kept forgetting to take pictures of the microbats, so unfortunately you'll all have to use you imagination on this one.

The night was noisey. The bat cages were right outside of my window. Apparently I was the only one who heard them most nights, but I believe that is just because everyone else was used to the noise by then. I was told that it was nearing the end of breeding season where the males scream all night long, trying to get the ladies. If you would like to replicate the sound of fruit bats at home for reference I suggest you do the following: Put a crying baby next to a toddler. Have the toddler yell into a microphone rhythmically. Give them buckets and chains to crawl over and bang on. Try to sleep in the same room. Erika had to get up every three hours to feed Fiona, the wallaby and Kit, the bat. She needed to turn the lights on every time to get down the stairs and warm up formula. Add in the factor that I am a natural night owl that has to force myself to go to sleep by a decent time normally. I'm positive I looked like I slept all of the time, but it was more like I was always trying to catch up on the sleep I wasn't getting at night. (Side note: Erika told me that she worried about me on my first night because the way I sleep looks like I'm suffocating myself with a pillow! Do I really sleep like that?)

During breeding season the males excrete a smelly red liquid behind their ears.

We had pythons come onto the property twice on separate occasions during my stay. They also always came between 1:00am-4:00am. Pam said that pythons came in four sizes: small, medium, large, and monster. She had only ever had one monster sized. The pythons came in hopes of eating a fruit bat. You could tell one was nearby when the bats started moving around erratically in their cages. Pam hated all snakes, especially these bat eating pythons. Erika had already caught several, so she did most of the work to catch the snakes, while I kept them from curling around anything and helped put them in a trash can like container to release in a bat free location a distance away. The pythons we caught during my stay were small-medium sized.

The smallest python we caught. Photo taken during release in bat free area.

Fiona (wallaby) and Kit (fruit bat) were pretty awesome, so I have a ton of pictures of them. Fiona was found in a pouch after her mother was hit by a car. Due to her dark features, everyone thinks she is a Swamp Wallaby. Fiona came to Bat Reach nearly two weeks before I arrived. Pam doesn't like raising macropods (bouncy marsupials) since they require a crazy amount of commitment and don't have a great success rate. Erika fell in love with the tiny pink wallaby and convinced Pam to let her give it a try. Fiona is fed 5ml of specialized Wombaroo brand formula every three hours. She only eats if her eyes are covered and she is warm.She has to be stimulated to use the bathroom and covered in multiple types of lotion to keep her from becoming too dry. Her basket is filled with blankets and heating pads which keep her between 30-32 degrees Celcius. Taking her out of her fabric pouch for only a few minutes can substantially lower her body temperature. 

During my time at Bat Reach I got to watch the process of her eyes go from sealed completely shut to wide open. I watched Erika tirelessly try different brands of lotion on Fiona's dry skin looking for something that would help with the peeling caused from the dry heat of the pouch. She should be out of the danger zone by now, and will start to grow fur soon. Eventually she will be soft released onto wild private land. I can't wait to see pictures of her all grown up!

And, of course, there was Kit. Fruit bat mothers will often leave their heavy babies for short periods of time to go in search for food. Kit's mother never returned. By the time he was brought to Bat Reach he was thin and covered in flies and their eggs. He got cleaned up and found a new mom in Erika. Kit gets fed approximately every four hours and is a glutton for formula. To eat, Kit grabs Erika's shirt with his feet. Erika wraps a small blanket around Kit, like his mother's wings, and tilts him upside down like he would drink naturally. He chews on things as he teethes, climbs on everything he can reach, and makes loud squeals each time Erika walks by the room. When I arrived, Kit was in a basket in the corner of the living room. Right before I left, he was moved to a larger space in the middle of the room with a rack to hang on and flap his wings.

One day a macropod rahabber visited Pam with a little male glider she had found under a tree the night before. He was sickly and young, so she took him home, but didn't have anything nourishing to feed him. Everyone thought he was a sugar glider, but Pam corrected us that he was in fact a squirrel glider. When I first saw the glider he was curled up into a stiff ball, frail, thin, and only taking an occasional sharp breath. Pam put him in a fabric pouch and Erika and I fixed up a nice fluffy basket for him. I checked on him constantly throughout the day and convinced Pam to give him subcutaneous fluids every few hours, even though she was sure he wouldn't make it. His breathing evened out and his body relaxed. By the evening, he was able to stand up on shaky legs. I had a clear liquid mixture made for him to drink. Gliders at his age (just about to leave their mom) drink on their own quite well, so we filled a cup with the liquid and gave him small spoonfuls at a time to lap up with his tongue. He rejected drinking anything a few times. I would just wait and try again a little later. Eventually he gave in. That night I named him Pluto, due to the fact that he was tiny, grey, and everyone kept misidentifying the type of glider he was.

I woke up at 1:30am and 4:30am to feed him again that first night. By morning he was much improved, probably looking better than I was. Erika took a few pictures of him as he ate his breakfast. He wasn't going to the bathroom by himself, so I had to stimulate to get him to urinate at all. After a couple days, he didn't need my help anymore to use the bathroom. His clear liquid drink became a vitamin rich fruit, insectivore, formula smoothie, with honey for a treat sometimes. He was increasing in activity and weight each night. We didn't weigh him, but it was easy to see the difference compared to the skeleton he came in as.

By the time I left he was already looking amazing! I'm so happy I got the chance to work with Pluto. Some of the evening volunteers were so impressed with his improvement that they wanted to put a little blurb about him in the local newspaper. I was asked to write a short paragraph about his story. They specifically told me not to go into detailed facts about the species, which was difficult for me. They posted the paragraph on the Bat Reach Facebook page and it should be in the paper sometime in April.