I stroll into the field, locate my target animal instantly, keep it company for two hours, collect data and move on to the pups at the den, collecting extensive data on maternal care. This is how things should work. In reality however, things get a little more interesting. On several occasions I have tracked down an individual, heard the loud beeps from my telemetry receiver signaling that this individual is nearby, “called” it for hours, and ended up throwing in the towel because, oh well, it didn’t show up. And the pups? Well, we’ve had only one breeding couple so far, and time’s ticking by: I have only one more breeding season left before I have to write up my thesis! Fieldwork demands quite a bit of determination and grit, because there are so many factors out of your control.
And fieldwork, theoretically, calls for emotional detachment. We are scientists, after all, and need to collect data without tainting it with our soppy sentimentality. But, like most ecologists, I get emotionally involved in the lives and personalities of the batties. This, in fact, keeps me going – it’s easier to spend long, dark nights in the field if you’re genuinely curious about the lives of these wild animals. Without a bit of passion for the batties, I’d never make it.
Luckily, it’s easy to get emotionally involved in the lives of batties. Take the couple Aristotle (or Ari) and Scruffy for instance – Ari is notably the most abusive husband we have come across in the field.
His temper tantrums often lead him into nasty fights with Scruffy, be it over raisins or simply out of irritation at her presence. Interestingly, she never gave up on him – for better or worse, batty style! Named after her sick appearance (literally speaking), she was the scrawniest of all batties I had laid eyes on, with a large and rapidly expanding bald patch around her neck and shoulders. But boy oh boy, are looks deceiving! She was easily the feistiest of all female batties, leaving me completely drained of energy with her fast pace and quick disappearing acts behind thorn bushes. In fact, I secretly wished she would pass out for a while so I could catch my breath.
And this is where emotional detachment would have been helpful. I remember quite vividly the last evening I spent with her and for the first time ever, she took me on a stroll, limping and stopping ever so often to rest underneath bushes. She could barely forage for food and was in a lot of pain. Our normal two hour data session only lasted thirty minutes before she disappeared into a den for the rest of the night. I anxiously waited for the worse the following day and sure enough by midday, we received a panicked call from a meerkat-project volunteer that a very sick batty had been spotted around. That would be the last time I see Scruffy again.
It doesn’t get any worse than that, does it?