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Why fly? Bats prefer to just hang around


Holy acclimation, bat men!

The six bats - all male - at the National Aquarium's Australia exhibit have yet to make their public debut, more than six weeks after its opening. The crocodiles, turtles, fish, skinks, snakes and free-roaming birds have all been flying, crawling and swimming it up for the crowds, but the bats have not left their private "Penthouse B" holding area atop the exhibit.

"Their decision has been to stay where they are," says aquarium spokeswoman Jenny Yates. "There's no immediate plan to bring them out."

The grey-headed fruit bats were the first species brought into the new exhibit in October. The plan was to give them time to gradually get used to people, so they eventually would move from their cage to freedom, so to speak. But aquarium officials say that with staff and contractors routinely walking by the bats' cage, there was too much pre-opening commotion for the "flying foxes" to feel comfortable enough to leave their confines.

"They needed several months of quiet time," Yates says. "They didn't get it."

During the quieter, pre-opening special events, several of the bats did fly into the exhibit - but didn't come back on cue. Ideally, the bats will come and go from their cage on command. But when opening day, Dec. 16, arrived, aquarium staff said the bats just weren't ready for this prime-time, controlled behavior.

Rather than hold up the opening for one species, the aquarium proceeded with the unveiling of its $74.6 million "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes" and let the bats stay in their cage while the other critters went on display.

This species of Australian bat, which is more active during dusk and dawn, is particularly skittish. So, their shyness has been no surprise to the aquarium staff. Three times a day, the staff has been holding training sessions to lure the bats out. Enticed by food (grapes work well; vegetables do not), a few of the bats have been responding by moving out of the cage door and walking along the attached cargo net.

Ultimately, the staff wants the bats to leave the cage, shinny along the cargo net, land on a nearby exhibit tree, then explore the exhibit. "Then, we want them to come back when we tell them to," says Heidi Hellmuth, the aquarium's manager of animal programs.

The bats, she says, are fine and healthy and "acting like bats" - hanging around the cage, grooming, eating and resting. They're just not ready to fly among the exhibit's crowds. For training purposes, the bats have been given Australian names such as Syd, Mel, Victor and Darwin. Certain bats are demonstrating more interest than others in embracing the game plan, i.e., leaving the cage and swooping around for the human visitors, who have noticed their absence.

"People have been curious. But once we explain why the delay, they seem happy that we are putting the needs of the bats first," Hellmuth says. "We are taking it slow so the bats will be less stressed."

Yesterday was a typical "passive" training day at the Australian exhibit. The staff left the cage door open, put food on the cargo net and let any bats wander out if they wanted to. Trainers use an acrylic pole as a target to get the bats back in their cage; when the bats touch the target, they get a treat.

Hellmuth reports that Syd has proved to be "very trainer-oriented." (The bats also are enticed by a hit of 100-percent fruit juice from a syringe.) The aquarium might have big plans for Syd; he could become the designated educational bat, the one staff can pick up and show up-close to the public. Spread his wings and all those cool moves.

Syd, along with Mel, in fact, has been coming out more during training sessions to hang out in the cargo net. Darwin is another case, however, and Victor, too. Timid flying foxes, so far.

But in time - maybe a month or so - the training staff of the National Aquarium hopes to have the gang of six bats out of their "off-exhibit holding area" and flying the chattering, thundering skies of the Australia exhibit.

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