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The tragedy of the bats

A poignant story of immense cruelty that also reveals how amazing people with huge hearts answer the call of a moment

These are terrible times. Last week alone witnessed a brutal terror attack that claimed over 40 lives at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul; a father of 10 was killed in front of his children in a drive-by shooting by Palestinian terrorists; and a 13-year-old girl was slaughtered while asleep in her bed by a Palestinian teenager, who was later lauded as a hero by his family.

But behind these headlines, another tragedy of massive proportions was taking place. Low-key and absent from the mainstream news, known only to a small group of people: the tragedy of the bats of Hadera.

I first learned of this story from a post on my Facebook news feed two and a half weeks ago, and I have been following it heart-wrenchingly ever since. It is important to me that you know about it.

This is a story about immense cruelty and lack of respect for life, but it is also a story of some amazing people with huge hearts, who answered a very difficult call of the moment. It goes like this:

More than 25 years ago, a massive building was constructed in Hadera. It was intended to house an indoor market, but that never materialized. It has stood empty ever since, known as the “White Elephant” by local residents. Well, not exactly empty. The building was occupied by more than 5,000 fruit bats, which, true to their names, have been fruitful and multiplied. The building’s other nickname is the “Bat Market.”

Bats have a bad reputation, partly because of horror films. But in reality, bats are the only flying mammal in the world. Fruit bats have a lifespan of 20-30 years, a complex and close community structure, and are important in the pollination of fruit (remember that while you enjoy that mango).

many bats
Photo courtesy of Shirley Cohen

Over a month ago, a man living nearby the empty building saw the beginning of plans for construction there — a shopping mall and luxury-apartment complex are in the pipeline to replace the abandoned monstrosity. Knowing about the thriving bat colony inside, the man immediately contacted ATALEF, a non-profit organization dedicated to bat rescue (“atalef” is the Hebrew word for bat, and an acronym for “help and treatment for fruit bats”).

According to an article in Haaretz (which you can read here, in Hebrew), representatives of ATALEF held a meeting with the contractor of the new complex and municipal officials, and it was agreed that the building’s destruction would be carried out in cooperation with ATALEF, enabling volunteers to evacuate the bats beforehand. However, this arrangement was not honored, and on a black day some three weeks ago, the same neighbor who had alerted the organization about the construction plans, informed them that part of the building had been blown up. The contractor claimed that the people from ATALEF weren’t organized enough to cooperate with the arrangements, and cruelly and uselessly pointed out that fruit bats are not an endangered species.

Well over 4,000 bats (and this may be a gross underestimate) were crushed to death or seriously injured when the building collapsed on top of them. Given the number of casualties, the word “massacre” is not an overstatement.

Members of ATALEF and volunteers rushed to the site, set up a field hospital, and worked around the clock digging through the rubble to find bats who were still alive. Animal-rights lawyers got involved and a stop order was placed on the destruction of the rest of the building, until all of the remaining bats could be evacuated.

It is currently bat birthing season, so there were many babies left motherless, and mothers who birthed prematurely due to the trauma. For the really curious, there are videos on the net, including one showing a cardboard box full of dust, pieces of plaster, and dead bats. Of more than 4,000 bats caught inside as the building exploded, only several hundred were rescued alive, most of them severely injured. Many didn’t survive the trip to the veterinary hospital. Others were immediately euthanized, as there was no hope of saving them. Still others are dying one by one, in foster homes or a special bat shelter near Beit Shemesh, built and run by Nora Lifschitz, a colorful, uncompromising and completely dedicated woman who devotes her life to saving animals and street kids (the Haaretz article above also tells her story in Hebrew, and here it is in TOI, in English). Thanks to Lifschitz and other foster homes, there are also bats who are healing, a small fragment of a once-thriving community.

I followed the posts about the building’s destruction in real time. I donated money, filled out forms to volunteer, read the requests for donations of blankets, stuffed animals, fruit, and for volunteers to help feed the bats. The story was with me, on a background frequency, constantly. And then, last Thursday, after a long day of horrific personal and national news, Facebook presented me with a long post by a woman who had fostered an injured bat.

She wrote about how she’d learned that bats have personalities, just like puppies. She wrote about how the bat would sit on her shoulder and snuggle into her neck. She wrote about making fruit shakes for the bat because its broken jaw prevented it from eating pieces of fruit. And she wrote about coming home and finding the bat clinging to its stuffed animal, dead. The post sported pictures of the fruit shake, the bat on her shoulder, and a selfie of her with the tiny creature in the palm of her hand. The post ends with her rumination of despair with our world, where thousands of living creatures can be killed at the blink of an eye, and where a 13-year-old girl can be stabbed to death in her bed. After all of the day’s heartbreaking news, it was this post that finally broke me down, weeping, and I still cry each time I think about it.

Shirley Cohen and her fostered bat z”l, photo courtesy of Shirley Cohen

I share this woman’s despair at the loss of our world׳s semblance of humanity and respect for life, and at the cruelty and brutality that is running amok all around us. And yet this story features a woman who devotes her life to saving helpless creatures, another (and many like her) who are fostering bats until they return to health, a heroic neighbor who bothered to alert ATALEF to the imminent danger to the bats, and tens, if not hundreds, of volunteers who gave and are giving unboundedly to save these unfortunate, misrepresented creatures. And in them, hope remains.

ATALEF is still in need of volunteers to help feed the bats in the shelter, donations of fruit, blankets, medicines, money and more. This is their Facebook page, and here is a link about whom to contact in order to donate and/or volunteer (if you need a translation, contact me in the comments). Let’s keep the humanity of humanity going.

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic.