I was worried about the bat on my lap. As Nicole drove, I held the small Tupperware box and peered in at the furry black-brown creature inside, which was not much bigger than a hummingbird, and a lot more still.
We were taking the bat to return it to the wild, or at least, to a few unbuilt acres of Palma Sola Park, a bayside spot just south of Tampa Bay, inland of Anna Maria Island. A month or so earlier, the bat had been found as a sick and scrawny baby, but having been nursed to maturity, it now seemed able to live on its own. Or rather, it seemed possible that the bat might make it. At least it could fly— it had escaped once from its container and taken some loops around the one-room rehab center, Wildlife, Inc., where my partner Nicole volunteers.
A survey by TripAdvisor recently named Anna Maria Island, where we live, the fourth-best island in the US, which gives me more reason to distrust and dislike TripAdvisor. I distrust TripAdvisor because the survey ranked AMI as a better destination than Maui (yeah, right), and dislike it because April 2013 saw the greatest number of visitors ever recorded here, and we saw a lot more people on the beaches than we want. Contrary to what the Chamber of Commerce would have the rest of America think, we residents are not a friendly race of simple, good-hearted people who welcome outsiders to our flower-filled, paradisiacal, ocean-side home. We hate tourists. We cut them off in traffic; we steal their shoes from the edge of the sand; we go out of our way to avoid them.
Where Wild Animals Go
Fortunately, I've been coming to AMI since the 60s, and I know places still undiscovered by TripAdvisor and those of that ilk. For instance, Wildlife, Inc. [http://wildlifeinc.org/] is a tiny non-profit rehab center run in the home of Ed and Gail Straight in Bradenton Beach. Any time of the year, the shelter is housing and providing respite to dozens or hundreds of injured or ailing owls, sick seabirds, new-born small mammals, sometimes new-born big mammals, and re-habbing reptiles. Often we get exciting creatures like bobcats and baby deer (which are not rehabbed in the same enclosure).
Most of the animals are victims of human interference or carelessness: they've been hit by cars, sickened by rat poison, or mauled by pets. Tourists drive too fast on the dark roads, leave lights on the beaches during turtle season, and let their dogs run in the wilderness areas: more reasons to dislike and distrust tourists.
Unlike the local beaches and captive-animal attractions, Wildlife, Inc., is not open to the public, but some annual visitors to the island volunteer every time they come. Tourists are allowed to visit and see the facilities if they are becoming supporters, such as by volunteering or making a donation.
While the beaches and the rental units fill up with visitors, my friends and I retreat inland to overheated, mosquito-rich waterways and parks, such as Robinson Preserve for kayaking and bird-watching, or Myakka State park for enormous alligators. For the bat's release, Nicole and I were headed to the slow-lane waterfront suburb in west Bradenton called Palma Sola and its manatee hangout. This tiny parklet (inside a much bigger area called Palma Sola Park) about half a mile south of Highway 64 is marked by an arched bridge and a sign about not feeding the manatees. Otherwise — say, from a Google search — you'd never know it was there. And even if you ran across it in the daytime, you wouldn't guess that it's home to one of the largest bat colonies in the area, under the bridge by the bay.
No Modeling Manatees
About 7:45 p.m., with plenty of light still in sky, we got to the spot, which is several acres of water and green space around a tiny inlet. When it's warm enough, which is about 9 months of the year, manatees congregate in the shallow, protected inlet between two bridges, eating whatever it is that grows on the sea-walls, and drinking fresh water that flows from the houses.
A note on manatees: manatees are our state marine mammal, this county is named for them, and desperate sailors have found them sexy, but I'll tell you this: your manatee does not photograph well. It's hard even to see them. They're dark gray-brown and move slowly, usually underwater in dark, gray-brown, slow-moving water. Most days at this spot, especially around 5 p.m., you can see concentric ripples, and once in a while a brown oval thing will periscope up, emitting a strong, plaintive whiff that distinguishes the protuberance from, say, floating logs or alligator snouts.
A kid fishing on the bridge once told me, when I asked him if he'd seen anything, "We saw one right here; we saw a whole manatee!" He was excited because the light had been shining at an angle that displayed more than just the creature's head. It is thrilling to see a whole manatee: they're enormous, and rubbery-looking and obviously sweet — but you can put the camera away and just enjoy the sight, because on film, all you get is an undefined underwater blob. On the night of the bat-release, I wasn't even looking or listening for sea-cows; the bat was all that mattered.
Bat Box Boogie
The sides of the park slope steeply towards the water, which was opaque and black-brown and into which I did not want to fall. Stepping with care, I carried the box to a grassy spot, trying not to attract attention from the few people still around. As usual at dusk, the seabirds were hanging themselves up to dry in the trees, and the black crows and white seagulls were heading mysteriously home. Every few minutes, a car would cross the bridge, making a noise that I was afraid would disturb the bat with its super-sensitive hearing.
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