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Airman 'moonlights' as bat rehabilitation specialist

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Air Force Staff Sgt. Sachiko Boland, a Reserve separations specialist at the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., holds a bat in her hands, July 10, 2018, as part of her duty as a volunteer bat rehabilitation specialist. Boland's love of bats began in 1999 when one attached itself to her costume during a renaissance festival. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Mekkri)

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Air Force Staff Sgt. Sachiko Boland, a Reserve separations specialist at the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., holds a bat in her hands with a group of bat rehabilitation specialists, July 10, 2018, as part of her duty as a volunteer bat rehabilitation specialist. Boland's love of bats began in 1999 when one attached itself to her costume during a renaissance festival. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Mekkri)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, COLO. --

A Reserve Citizen Airman said she received a message from the universe one fateful summer day in 1999 that changed the course of her life.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Sachiko Boland, a reserve separations specialist at the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., said she unexpectedly met her spirit animal while touring the Colorado Renaissance festival.

Decked out in a Renaissance-period costume, Boland hadn’t noticed a small passenger riding in the thick folds of her skirt. Another festival patron told her the traveler was a bat. 

“I just reached down and the bat crawled into my hand,” Boland said. “It was the softest little creature.”

Having a deep love for animals but feeling no connection to one in particular back then, Boland said she had struggled to find her spirit animal. It seemed everyone in her life had an animal with which they identified. Her sister loved wolves. One friend connected to eagles and raptors; another friend was into owls. That day, Boland started her lifelong relationship with bats and began learning as much as she could about the mysterious creature.

Fourteen years would pass before Boland would begin an apprenticeship to become a certified bat specialist. One of her first requirements was to get her rabies vaccination. 

“Despite popular belief not all bats carry the rabies virus,” she said. “The number is actually less than half of 1 percent out of nearly 1,200 species.”

Boland submitted paperwork with the state of Colorado after receiving her vaccination stating that she was going to begin working with a bat rescuer. She also signed an agreement stating that she would not keep any bats as pets.

“After all, bats are happiest and healthiest in the wild,” she said.
Now a certified bat rehabilitation specialist, Boland works alongside her “bat crew,” a team of local bat rehabbers. She receives rescue requests for bats in people’s homes or yards, and calls of injured bats attacked by housecats or other wildlife. 

When a call about an injured or trapped bat comes to the team, a member retrieves the bat and delivers it to Boland. As simple as this process sounds, she cautions that bat rescue is not for everyone. 

“Individuals not trained in bat rescue should not touch bats or attempt to care for them,” said Boland. “Training and safety is very important to keep the humans and the bats unharmed when it comes to rescue and rehabilitation.”

After she receives the injured animal, her training kicks in. Boland performs an examination to ensure the major wounds are taken care of first before cleaning the bats and checking their eyes and ears, similar to triaging a human patient.

“The worst calls I have received are those of a bat stuck to freshly poured blacktop or to sticky flytraps placed outside. It is a time-intensive process to remove and treat the animal,” she said with a tear in her eye. “They do not always survive.”

Having a support system is important in times like these, Boland says. She finds comfort in other members of her bat crew.

“We have each other,” says Denise Schaefer, Boland’s friend who is also licensed rehabber. “We all jump in and it really is a support group. We know how difficult it is, it’s heartbreaking to lose a bat. Even though you try and try and try. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

Schaefer has rehabilitated bats with Boland for nearly two years and credits her with mentoring her through many key points in the rehabilitation process.

“She is so focused and so patient,” said Schaefer. “Bats are fragile. It can take up to two hours to remove one from a fly trap. You end up with holes and tears [in the bat’s wings]. It’s a very painstaking process and it takes an ungodly amount of patience and self-discipline to do what she does.”

Schaefer also learned the bond that forms in animal care and struggles to voice how special each bat can be.
“The bats all have different personalities,” Schaefer says. “They’re individual creatures and being so tiny, you want to protect them and make them happy. You don’t want them to hurt, you don’t want them to be sick.”

Boland uses a variety of techniques to treat the injured bats. She learned some methods on her own and others by engaging with other bat specialists.

“Bats really heal more when you pay attention,” says Boland. “It’s the element of human touch. People heal faster when they receive physical therapy and are stretched or massaged. It’s the same with bats. Doing that to the bats has decreased the time it takes them to rehabilitate. We’ve grown back full wings in the matter of a month by performing mineral oil massages.”

Once the bats are healed and able to fly, Boland’s team returns them to within a five-mile radius of where they were found to maximize the chance they return to their colony.

Those who find the injured bats often call Boland to find out about their “Batsy” or “Vampirella” or “Pearl.” After updating them, Boland takes advantage of the time to educate them on how bats benefit the ecosystem. Better than poisonous insecticides, Boland says one bat can eat up to 1,000 bugs per hour or 8,000 to 11,000 per night, and can enrich soil through nutrient-rich waste, known as guano.

“There is absolutely no maliciousness in them,” Boland says. “People assume that because of the old vampire movies, bats are out to get them. In Colorado, we have insectivorous bats. They don’t want you; they want the bugs around you. They look like little puppies and little teddy bears. They’re mind-blowingly adorable.”

“Bats get a bad rap,” says Boland. “Give them a chance and you will see what they do for us.”