By Keafon Jumbam
“Batties, batties! – we’ve just come across another dead batty.” For the past couple of months, this has been an almost daily radio call. In the beginning it was mostly unknown foxes on the growing obituary list, but our own have also joined the ranks… Ernie was the first to depart, followed by Bentley and then Bertha – the one and only project mom (gasp; there goes my existing link to maternal care studies!). To say we have been under immense stress would be an understatement. We live in constant fear of who will be next.

Initially, we couldn’t make sense of why batties were dropping dead like flies all over the reserve. An onsite vet dissected the carcasses but the cause of death remained unclear. Samples of the brain, lungs and heart were sent to laboratories for further investigation and the results came back positive for rabies. Then our panic really intensified because of the extremely high risk to ourselves. Rabies is often fatal in humans too, and I hadn’t taken any rabies shots yet, thanks to the public hospital policy in Phuthaditjhaba that wouldn’t administer vaccines unless the patient had been bitten and tested positive for rabies. I panicked even more as I reflected on a few instances in the past when I had been nipped in the leg by naughty batties demanding for more raisins. Was I already infected?

It turns out I wasn’t alone; some of my team-mates were also losing their minds over the outbreak and needed rabies shots and boosters. Orders for vaccines were hurriedly put through and although they arrived within a few days, it felt like months of waiting.

Newly collared and vaccinated foxes
Newly collared and vaccinated foxes

The vaccines weren’t our only concern; we needed to attend to the batties too. It is the start of breeding season and we need to keep track of them as they disperse in search of mates. Thanks to issues with our suppliers, most of our batties lacked radio collars. What is more, the mate-search and pairing up process comes with fierce scuffles and territorial fights that further increase the spread of rabies in our population. And batties are so cute you don’t realize they can be deadly. Baine for instance, had wandered off to a neighboring farm in search of a mate, but was sent packing with bloodshot eyes and half of his head mauled to a pulp. The vets couldn’t have come at a better time – they attended to their injuries, vaccinated them against rabies and then collared them.

Alas it was too late for Bentley who was found dead upon the vets’ arrival. His badly injured brother Baine was by his side on the night he was found dead. The deceased’s partner – Catelyn – was in no mood to play the grieving wife; she had already found solace in the paws of another fox.

His brother's keeper: Ben and Baine used to be inseparable
His brother’s keeper: Ben and Baine used to be inseparable

And so we took our cue from Cat, stopped moping, and ended the stressful weeks with a party themed Rabies Babies, in honour of the lives we’d lost. Dressed up as doctors and nurses in white lab coats and dissecting aprons, we danced our sorrows away. And you know the party wouldn’t be complete without some shots right? 🙂

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