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Meet Northern Ireland's Batwoman... how caring Karen helps to rescue creatures of the night

By Fionola Meredith

Published 31/10/2015

Karen Healy at her home with ‘Lucky’, a Leisler bat
Karen Healy at her home with ‘Lucky’, a Leisler bat
Bat rescuer Karen Healy at her home in Ballykelly
Karen Healy at her home with ‘Lucky’, a Leisler bat

Karen Healy is a real-life Batwoman. Not in the sense of wearing a shiny black mask and cape, but in her all-consuming voluntary work as a bat rescuer.

To the tiny winged creatures she cares for Karen is a real superheroine, devoting every moment of her spare time to their welfare.

As a volunteer with the Northern Ireland Bat Group, Karen, from Ballykelly, Co Londonderry, is trained to respond to emergency calls from members of the public who find injured bats.

This year, in particular, she's been run off her feet due to the wet and windy summer, which was especially hard on young bats. The bad weather meant the mothers couldn't find enough food for their infants and many babies ended up on the ground in a weakened state, where they were easy prey for their biggest enemy - cats.

Compound fractures, wings missing, bones sticking out: a mauled bat is a pitiful sight, and sadly most animals in this state have to be put down.

"There hasn't been a day since April that I haven't had a bat call," says Karen. "At one point during the summer I had 19 bats in the house. My partner Simon helps out, but our evenings are non-existent. We haven't been to the cinema in months.

"Between rescuing the bats, medicating them, feeding them, grooming them and then releasing them, you just don't get a moment to yourself."

Feeding very young bats takes particular dedication. Karen gets up every two hours during the night and drips puppy milk into their tiny mouths using the tip of an artist's paint brush.

When she tried to snatch a brief break at a spa in Sligo her latest charge - Angelica, a four-month-old pipistrelle bat - had o come along, too. Karen nipped out between treatments to give Angelica her feed.

Even when she is at her full-time job, she's on bat duty. "I'm an environmental officer at Creggan Country Park in Derry and the helpline comes through to me there during office hours and then it goes to my mobile when I go home - that's usually when the madness begins."

Bats turn up in the strangest of places. Karen has discovered them stuck to fly-paper, inside wood-burning stoves, even in a vat of cooking oil outside a Chinese restaurant.

They generally find their way into people's houses by following moths, which are drawn to the light, but they can get tangled up in clothes on the washing line and come in that way, too.

In one recent case a woman was shocked to discover a bat clinging to the inside of her bra just as she was putting it on.

Evenings are exercise time for Karen's patients. Before she releases them into the wild, she likes to check they are ready by allowing them to fly round her living room for at least 10 minutes.

If they can do that, she deems them strong enough to survive on their own again.

Sometimes, though, the bats make an unscheduled appearance. Karen keeps the bats in her spare room (otherwise known as the "bat-cave"), but it only takes a quarter-inch gap for them to squeeze out of their cages. If the door isn't properly shut, they're away.

"I was doing the Halloween decorations the other day and I saw something dark scoot under the sofa," she said. "I thought it was a massive spider, but it was actually just a bat that had escaped from upstairs.

"You might find one hanging from the curtains, another in the bath plug. They're master escape artists."

Although Karen says that the Northern Ireland Bat Group is always looking for new volunteers, it's really not a job for the faint-hearted, or squeamish. Once the young bats are weaned they move on to eating live meal-worms, to replace the 3,000 midges they would consume every night in the wild.

For the newly-weaned juvenile bats, Karen snips the head off each worm with a pair of scissors so they can lap up the juicy flesh inside. Later they take the worms whole - up to 40 per bat each night.

But all the hard work is coming to an end soon.

Halloween marks the close of the bat year and soon they'll be snuggling up in their roosts for their long winter hibernation.

This means freedom for Karen - and a welcome respite from her devotions.

Until spring comes around, when the bats wake up and the whole cycle begins again.

Belfast Telegraph

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