By Ross Atwater

After arriving in Mineral Wells, Texas on a hot July afternoon and checking into a hotel, I bought a fresh watermelon outside a local WalMart and drove to the center of town, to a former furniture store that was now home to Mineral Wells’ most distinguished resident -- Mr. Bentley.

Though I had never met Mr. Bentley, I knew of his reclusive nature, and I knew he would strongly protest my intrusion into his private sanctum. But I also knew of his weakness for watermelon. I Parked my rental car behind the former outlet of ottomans and end-tables and went inside.

This was Bat World, a center for bat rehabilitation and public education where I attended the Bat World Boot Camp -- a five-day workshop with hands-on training in bat rehabilitation led by Amanda Lollar, the founder and president of Bat World Sanctuary. Mr. Bentley -- an African straw-colored flying fox (Eidolon helvum) -- was one of many residents at Bat World and the main reason for my visit.

Other bat enthusiasts who attended that week included: bat rehabbers Dick and Cindy from California who had brought three hoary bats (Lasiurus cinereus) and a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus); Carol, a wildlife rehabber from Oklahoma who had arrived with over a dozen eastern red bats (Lasiurus borealis); Angela, a zoology student from Michigan State University; Mary, a researcher in bat vocalization who wanted to videotape the nighttime antics of bats; and Denise, a biologist from Florida who regularly assisted Amanda with the boot camp workshops.

Aside from an educational center, Bat World is home to dozens of non-releasable bats which have been orphaned, used in medical research, retired from zoos, or confiscated from the illegal pet trade. The roster of bats included Mexican free-tails (Tadarida brasiliensis), Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus), Jamaican fruit bats (Artibeus jamaicensis), African flying foxes, as well as many domestic species including eastern reds and evening bats (Nycticeius humeralis).

Each summer Bat World experiences a steady intake of orphaned bat pups and juveniles which require constant feeding, so we were in the right place at the right time for hands-on training in bat care. In a small backroom crowded with reptariums, we gathered around a narrow counter to learn the different feeding methods for the different species of bats. Amanda demonstrated the art of feeding free-tail pups which are kept inside warm denim pouches during feeding time. She reached into a pouch, found a pup, fed it a foam tip soaked in formula, and then placed it into a separate holding pouch. Each student in turn reached into a pouch, found a pup, fed it a foam tip soaked in formula, and then placed it into the holding pouch. I reached into a pouch, found a set of sharp teeth, uttered an appropriate expletive, and heard what I swore was a ripple of laughter from the holding pouch; the little monsters knew an amateur when they saw one.

Eastern reds have a plush coat of red fur, and Carol had lost several of these delicate bats when their fur became matted with excess formula. She was very upset, but we all learned from her misfortune how to administer formula from an eyedropper, holding the bat at a downward angle to allow excess formula to fall safely away. I found the red pups easy to work with and enjoyed feeding the juvenile reds mealworms as they hung upside down on the netting inside a flight cage.

Other lessons included preparing formulas for the pups, maintaining mealworm colonies for the adult insectivorous bats, preparing fruit dishes for the fruit bats, and cleaning flight cages. We also learned about bat anatomy and practiced injection techniques and surgical procedures using dead specimens.

Down the street was a two-story building dating back to 1899. Vacant for decades, the second-story apartments had become a natural breeding site for thousands of migrating free-tail bats. Bat World purchased the old building in 1992 and converted it into a bat sanctuary after making extensive repairs and removing over 6,000 pounds of guano!

We walked there on our first afternoon and gathered under the front overhang away from the hot sun. As Amanda unlocked the outside door, I experienced a sensation so exhilarating that I shall remember it all my life, for nothing makes such an indelible impression on the mind as the heady aroma of 20,000 free-tail bats cooking in the hot, humid confines of a sandstone building. Mm-mm-good. I stepped back to the curbside, not wanting to lose the tuna sub I had for lunch, while the other students, seemingly unfazed by the pungent odor, filed through the door and up the stairs. Taking a deep breath, I plunged up the stairs behind them.

A long hallway bisected the second floor into left and right halves, separating the Mexican free tails on the left from the predominately eastern red bats on the right. We stepped through a screen door on the left into a dimly lit interior where dozens of chittering purplish-gray and pink free-tail bats flew overhead, with thousands more roosting on open rafters, the walls, and in unseen crevices.

In contrast to the left side, the right side of the old apartment building had only a few tenants, mostly eastern reds that were placed there to practice their skills in flying and catching insects. A bare light bulb hung from the high ceiling to attract insects through opened windows.

We checked the sanctuary each morning and evening for orphaned bat pups and rescued many free-tails, most of which were returned to the colony later in the summer after being hand raised. And it was not unusual to find one or two reds lying on the floor each morning in need of attention, for the relatively high-maintenance reds require hand feeding and frequent injections of fluids to fight dehydration.

We crowded around Amanda in the examining room one afternoon as she worked on a bat suffering from trauma -- an eastern red that had to have a wing amputated. The bat slowly awakened from its light anesthesia, seemingly indifferent to the loss of her appendage. Unfortunately, a couple of Mexican free-tails we found that week showed signs of rabies and were isolated for observation and eventually euthanized.

The moment I'd been waiting for arrived one evening when Amanda led me into Mr. Bentley's flight cage to personally introduce me to him. As expected, Mr. Bentley fussed and fumed when roused from his comfortable hammock and even Amanda, whom all the bats seem to regard as one of their own, wasn’t immune to his wrath as he nipped at her. But he is really just a shy guy and quickly came around when he saw the peace offering I had brought.

Aside from conducting the workshop and tending to the daily business of running the sanctuary, Amanda played hostess one evening when a crew from ABC’s 20/20 news program arrived with little notice to videotape a segment for a show on people with unusual occupations; they certainly had picked the right place!

Late one night, at the end of the week, when everyone had gathered around the electric fans running in the kitchen, and the subject of bats had turned to talk about other things, I heard the sound of something dropping. Looking into the front room, I saw a figure huddled under a dim light in a corner of a flight cage. It was Amanda, hand-feeding her colony of Mexican free-tails and dropping the empty syringes of formula into a pan by her feet. It had been an exhausting week for us, but Amanda was still working. Like many home-based wildlife rehabbers, her day begins before sunrise and ends long after sunset when the rest of us are fast asleep. And it is this memory of a late-night feeding after a long day at the end of a hectic week that comes to mind whenever I think of Bat World, its mission, and the dedication of its founder.

This True Stories is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Bentley.