Bats finally hang loose at aquarium


Ladies and gentlemen, the bats are out.

More than six months after the opening of the National Aquarium in Baltimore's Australian exhibit, the featured attractions are on public display daily.

Last October, the bats were the first animals moved to the then-under-construction exhibit. But when Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes was set to open in December, the six, gray-haired fruit bats appeared too stressed to leave their rooftop pen. So, the $74.6 million exhibit opened without them. Visitors noticed their absence, but the staff needed more time to train the bats to leave and return to their cage. Grapes and fruit-juice syringes were used to coax them out.

Finally, after months of daily training sessions, the bats know to shinny out of their pen by 8:30 a.m., fly into the exhibit, then return by 6:30 p.m. Rather than hang out on a tree built for them, the bats seem to congregate at the highest point in the exhibit - some 65 feet up and behind a large light.

"You think of bats in the night, but these flying foxes love sunshine," says exhibit curator John Seyjagat.

When you look up from the canyon floor of the exhibit, a pair of male bats probably will be in the mesh. It could be Syd, Mel, Darwin, Victor or Brisbane hanging about or occasionally swooping around the lush, loud exhibit.

"Pretty much all they do is hang out," Seyjagat says. Hang out, groom, chatter. "They sound like a bunch of 5-year-olds screaming." (He says a good time to see the bats in flight is about 6 p.m., when they begin to return to their cage for the night.)

Seyjagat and the other animal keepers are relieved that five of the six "flying foxes" have overcome their shyness and are truly part of the exhibit's gang of barramundi, blue-tongued skinks, crocs (whose eggs will be ready to hatch by month's end) and snake-necked turtles. The lone bat holdout has been slower to learn verbal commands, so he stays in a holding area as his brethren freely bat around.

Visitors worried about whatever may befall them from bats flying overhead should know the staff is acutely aware of the bat's 28-minute digestive turn-around time. The bats eat in their "night house" and, no sooner than 28 minutes later, are released into Baltimore's version of Australia.

Certainly makes looking up less risky.

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