flying foxes, moving futures

As another record-hot Australian summer brings temperatures to the mid-40s (celsius), entire communities of flying foxes face urgent threats due to heat stress, along with their daily struggle against injury and disease brought by encroachment onto their territories. This post raises issues about the ethics of settler intervention into the lives of flying foxes (and other non-human communities), but it nonetheless respects the care, commitment and labour of the folks who work to support the survival of these creatures. If you feel an ethical calling to support the folks caring for stressed, injured and sick bats, I would strongly recommend donating to the Australian Bat Clinic.

I would also like this post to honour the work of the late Deborah Bird Rose, who passed away at the end of 2018. Although I never knew her in person, she nourished several people who are dear to me, and her work with flying foxes, dingoes and other beings persecuted by the settler state continues to feed my thinking. 

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Flying foxes by Dinesh Valke

She wasn’t supposed to survive. She had quarantined herself, banished her own body from the protective webbing of her kin. When we met her, she was hanging limp from a low limb, close enough to the ground to be snapped up by dogs, following her Law even in this place shot through by the rules and regs of a land-hungry state. Her kin, above, swung and jagged from branch to branch, some creeping along branches to cat-fight each other with tiny, curled claws, others cling-wrapped into themselves, sleeping, in bunches, like overripe raindrops. She took herself away from them, quietly, to die.

It was clear from the web flesh of her wing, torn cleanly, bloodlessly, from its supporting bone and wrinkling softly against her russet belly fur like a popped balloon. The torn skin telegraphed the wall of barbed wire hugging the side of a brick-walled, municipal building, right behind the roosting tree. Mothers had been snagged here, along with the babies they nursed, clamped on their furred chests, as they flew down the river and back each night to hunt insects. Some starved to death still dangling from the rust-crusted fangs of metal. Signs on the wire warned urban settlers, students and tourists to Stay Off. Dried-out dangling bat-bodies, shriveling up like palm dates, warned everyone else.

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Little red flying foxes (mother and pup) by Duncan McAskill

This fence is part of that heads-on-spikes, bodies-on-wire type of ‘justice’, a slow-motion massacre over hundreds of years, changing shape regularly to fly under the radar. Sometimes it was sponsored and executed by the state, other times it was vigilante justice carried out  by people who called them ‘beautiful’, but were so offended by their smell and chatter that they demanded their removal.


If you’ve never met a flying fox community, have a watch and listen to this beautiful footage by Estraven Lupino-Smith, which will give you a sense of what it’s like to be in their company. ___________________________________________________________

Irony-blind settlers and their sciences call them ‘colonies’, poking at inherited fears of swarm, invasion, overwhelm and disease. News reports fanned out the face of a teenage boy who had died from handling an injured bat. This is the cost of compassion towards vermin, they smirked. Bats are favourite scapegoats for visions of zoonotic doom – vampirism, rabies, devastating outbreaks of Ebola. Here and now it was lyssavirus, spread by the flow of bat saliva into human wounds. Aggression, frenzies of fear, seizures, terror of fresh air and water – just a few of the symptoms to watch for,  if you can distinguish them from the moral panics that regularly judder through white settler culture.  Or the Hendra virus, that tricky sickness that can cause anything from mild flu-like symptoms to fatal neurological collapse. It’s been acknowledged by Western science for a good while now that these diseases are extremely rare – not to mention that the vast majority of their victims are bats. The most recent studies show that only 5.4% of flying foxes and blossom bats – just 7 out of 187 tested– showed since of Australian Bat Lyssa Virus, which led to the deaths of 3 people in the last 34 years. Put in perspective, zoonotic disease transferred by bats is a comparatively miniscule risk in a country where, in 2016-17 alone, falling out of bed killed 523 Australians. But for most of vigilantes, the problem isn’t disease: it’s sound and smell, the disruption of visions of perfect subtropical gardens and fruit undented by other species’ teeth.

We knew this roost community:  they flew over our apartment building at dusk everyday, which crouched under their flightpath to the river banks. Big groups of them would mimic the river, taunting its shape, flowing in currents down its long yawn into the Queensland coast. We’d run for cover when they feasted on the hard white fruits of the tree outside our building’s entrance entrance, dropping pits and half-chewed fruits, or when they tangled with the possums for the ripest mangos. This is part of the joy of living with them, of going out into the night and knowing that you are not alone, sensing the density of eyes, the wing lashes thickening the dark.

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Untitled by Oriijoy

We asked around and found out that the community had moved to their current location, a scraggle of eucalyptuses in a public park a couple of years before. They’d been evicted – in technical terms, ‘dispersed’- many times, in response to changes in city and state policies. As the climate changes, some bat communities have become refugees, organizing evacuations tofeed themselves or stay cool in the leaded heat of 47 degrees Celsius summers. A few years later, just south of here, I would watch a group of them scoop down from the treetops to dip their bellies into the Bellingen River to stay cool enough to breathe and fly. South, in Sydney, their relatives fell from the sky, baked alive by the heat from unrelieved pavement.  It was so hot that January day that we all had to sit submerged in the river – humans, dogs, snakes and goannas – just to keep our blood from over-heating. It was so hot that the federal Minister of the Environment was forced to resign. A few months before I wrote this, it was so hot that 1/3 of the remaining community of spectacled flying foxes was annihilatedin a single, two-day heatwave.  And just as I’m writing this, it’s so hot that over 2000 grey-headed flying foxes– whole family trees and communities – died of heat stress at the southernmost, and usually coolest, tip of their range.

Throughout all of these changes in laws–  Settler law, climate law, earth law, Western science laws – the bat communities hold their own, permanent Law tight to their furred chests like their precious pups, living and dying for it, as this little bat was doing. They carry it with them as they drop seeds across their huge range, literally shitting out urgent, yearned-for futures, splattering the gardens, paths and cars of belligerent settlers. As they move, rest and feed, they tickle heat-sore plants into life with precious pollens clinging to velvet chests and bellies, shifting entire eucalypt forestsas they migrate, re-creating Country wherever it’s needed. But they are moved, too, into cities where they are persecuted, banished and decimated. Still, they follow their Law, with each wing slice eroding the settler state’s.

This was what the little bat was doing when we met her – holding on to her Law even if it meant letting go her own life. We were torn. We understood that she had taken herself away from her community for a reason. Maybe she was sick and she didn’t want to infect her family, or impose a burden on them. But the cause of her injury was so clear: this was part of the violences that made our presence here easy, and hers a daily struggle.

We called the local vet, who had, just a few weeks ago, helped us to treat an electrocuted ringtail and the baby in her pouch. The vet directed us towards a group of volunteers who arrived within the hour, prepped with gloves, soft towels and a spacious box. The surgery to fix the wing was quite straightforward, they said, and she could soon be released back to the roost with minimal handling. They called her Delia, to distinguish her from the other bats in their care.

We never knowingly saw Delia again, although the volunteers phoned a few weeks later to let us know that she had been released back. But we wanted to learn more about the people who healed bats, so we drove down to a remarkable bat clinic and rehab centretucked into the lap of the hills just inland from Gold Coast. It’s not normally open to the public, only on annual education days – unlike the many ‘koala sanctuaries’ around the country that are anything but safe or quiet. When we arrived at the bungalow, we were immediately warned not to open a cloth bag that sat on a bench on the verandah. ‘What’s in it?’ I asked. ‘Really poisonous snake. We’ll take him and let him out later once we’ve had a look  to make sure he’s all right’. At the back of the veranda was a metal cage where a large Sulphur-crested cockatoo sat on one foot. ‘Helloooo,” he said, in a perfectly sinister southern English accent. We would find out shortly that this was his way of luring people over to the cage so that he could chomp whatever folds of flesh or fabric passed close enough to the bars. I asked if he was someone’s former companion animal, but our host told us that he was a wild cockatoo whom they’d found, disoriented, in the nearby mountains. He was suffering from a neurological condition that was affecting many of the birds in the region. ‘We don’t know where he got that accent. Probably picked it up from a tourist’. And the instinctively precise biting? “probably the same”. Just as we were passing to the house’s entrance, alongside a pen of bandaged and healing roos who had been struck by cars, I felt claws on my foot. It was difficult at first to tell what kind of creature had climbed onto me. Definitely a bird, but an almost totally featherless one. “That’s Remy,” I was told. Unable to fly, he walked around on foot or hitched rides on shoes, following our host, the volunteers and vets on their rounds. He was another cockatoo, a juvenile, but still only fraction of the average size without the aura of white feathers. He climbed onto my shoe and rode around with me throughout our visit, hopping off occasionally to show me his moon-walking technique.

We entered the bungalow, where there were bats hanging from every possible grip. Thousands of them. We were led to a back room where laundry lines were strung with wing-wrapped bats, orderly and calm despite their immense numbers, some screeching quietly to each other, or to themselves. We watched as our host gently returned one to his place on the clothesline, as he crawled over towards one of his bunkmates. “That one’s a trouble-maker”, she said with affection, “He’s always trying to pick fights with his mate there.” She knew each one of them individually, by personality. And sure enough, a few moments later we would hear the nail-on-metal screech and flap of fighting bats, and she would have to separate them again. These were the bats that were starting to recover, not quite ready to go out to the outdoors roost where 750 others were recuperating, preparing for their return flights home. Next, we were shown into a small, dark room filled with incubators. Rows of baby bats, each neatly swaddled in warm, care-worn cotton washcloths, slept in rows inside them. Our host came back holding a tiny package in her hand, a close-eyed, pink-nosed, golden-fuzzed pup no bigger than my pinky finger. This little one had come down from the far north of the state, she explained to us. This sanctuary was one of a network of bat carers up and down the Queensland coast who do emergency work, sometimes driving twelve hours to pick up heat-stroked, injured or sick bats, to get them to the person with the right skills to care for them.  “I’m not sure if this little one’ll make it,” she said tenderly,” But we hope so.” It almost hurt to see the degree of love she infused into that tiny body, how she calibrated her fingers perfectly to direct a feeding syringe into the wrinkle-clamped lips.

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Large flying foxes #2 by Ryan Poplin

Walking through that house strung and beaded with recovering bats, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sculpture ‘Fruit Bats’ by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus. His fiberglass flying foxes, each one unique, shaped and painted with the cross-hatching whose use he was gifted by his Murrungun-Djinang mentors, hang just as neatly from the geometric filaments of a Hills Hoist Clothes line. Below them, circular painted droppings cement their presence, spread their futures, flipping the bird at white suburban cleanliness. Those bats are there for a reason: they are staking their space in the everyday sprawl of suburban settler colonialism. They are shitting all over it, gorgeously, with purpose, with intent, with meaning and with right. They are refusing to be moved along. They are hanging tight, permanently present. In a stroke of ironic genius, Onus’ bats have found themselves centered in the permanent collection of one of the poshest art galleries in the country. For sure, it’s an example of the dominant culture letting itself to be seen to support Aboriginal art. But at the end of the day, the bats, and their droppings, are there on the polished concrete floor and elite lighting, at the center of things. They’re not going anywhere.

Like the bats in Onus’ sculpture, those creatures in the sanctuary hang from clotheslines and wires carefully designed to offer them ease, time, a chance to strengthen – the mirror image of the fanged fences and furnace climates designed to harm erase them, to maximize their fear and anxiety. I am humbled by this effort, by the simple, concrete crucialness of this work of patching up bats and sending them back out into their world-making work. This is harm reduction, for sure, since simply surviving under the violence of settler colonialism is trauma in itself for these bats and their kin. It can be a radical act: to heal and free and strategize for their futures, against the structures that secure our own (since we and our hosts at the sanctuary are all settlers of one kind or another), breaking our own laws in our best attempts to honour theirs (see the work of John Borrows on this subject). But we, as would-be settler healers, are also breaking their Law, imposing our norms about survival and comfort, our queasiness about death and suffering, our destroyer’s guilt. This is especially true for me, an interloper who doesn’t really know this Country, and haven’t been invited by it, the bats and their people. That’s the dilemma that wrestles with me: do I open myself to be confronted by the harm I am part of and step back to let the creatures deal with it in their own ways, knowing that more intervention makes things worse? That I have to live without the comfort of feeling that I’ve helped, the catharsis of caring? Or does taking responsibility mean doing what I have to in order to refuse that harm, to release one more life back out into their struggle, without demanding anything for myself? At the end of the day, the ethical imperative for me and my kin may be as simple as ‘get out of the fucking way’.

I don’t think I will ever find a resolution for this, at least for myself. But I am holding on hard to that image of the bats on the Hills Hoist, and that flying-fox-filled bungalow, and the rivers of diseased but resurgent bats that haunt swamped cities in Alexis Wright’s works of re-worlding. These are images of times to come when the bats reclaim this place, even if they have to move forests and futures – and shit all over settler society – to get it back.


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