Zane studied the cave entrance with a longing that only an eight-year-old boy could understand. His parents had forbidden him to enter. According to Pa, there could be a mountain lion or a bear in there. Ma countered that humans were destroying the ecosystem inside caves. Both agreed that he could get lost there.
If there were mountain lions and bears inside the cave, it only made sense that they could be outside them as well. He’d been wandering these woods for over a year, ever since they moved here from Fayetteville, but he’d never seen either – not even a footprint. Pa was just scaring him so he wouldn’t go inside. Ma was always complaining about how mankind was destroying the Earth. She was all for protecting the poor animals. Pa said people were animals too. He told Ma that we should be more concerned about people than animals, since we were humans.
How could two people who loved each other disagree on so many things? If he ever took a wife when he grew up, he was going to marry someone who agreed with him.
He crept closer to the mouth of the cave and listened. Sometimes he could hear noises, like squeaking. When he told Pa, he said it was probably bats. When he told Pa that he’d never seen any bats, he said they come out at night to feed. During daylight hours they slept, hanging from the ceiling by their feet. Sometime, he’d like to crawl in there and see. He’d hung upside down before, but how could anything sleep like that? He tried it, hanging his upper torso over the side of the bed, but even with the lights out, he couldn’t sleep.
He hesitated at the mouth of the cave. No one would know if he slipped inside for a few minutes. He wouldn’t go far. He remembered Ma’s word definition of the day this morning. Integrity: doing the right thing even though no one was looking. Was it actually wrong to go inside the cave? If he didn’t go far, he wouldn’t get lost. That was why they didn’t want him inside, wasn’t it?
He crouched and started to enter. As his head entered the opening, he paused again. He had promised Ma and Pa that he wouldn’t go in the cave. Ma said that if he didn’t follow the rules, he couldn’t go exploring. He pulled back. Integrity. That was important to Ma. It didn’t matter whether she discovered it or not. He would know he betrayed her trust.
He stood, feeling better as he moved away from the cave. Ma and Pa would never know he was tempted. He could have gone in, and no one would have known; but he didn’t go in. He wasn’t sure why that was more satisfying than exploring that cave, but it was.
He smiled as he turned back toward the house. It was close to lunch time and he was getting hungry. He jogged past the tiny furry form before it registered. He stopped and turned back to the animal. At first, he thought it was a mouse, but it didn’t look like a mouse. It was a light brown color, but it had huge ears. It’s dark brown legs were up behind it’s ears. He leaned over it and noticed the wings. It wasn’t a mouse. It was a bat!
He reached down to touch it and stopped. Another rule. Don’t touch wounded or dead animals. He was supposed to report it to Ma. Was it alive? He glanced around and found a stick. He used the stick to gently nudge the bat. It moved, making a hissing sound as its tiny mouth gaped open. It had sharp teeth!
He dropped the stick and turned back toward the house. He ran as fast as he could until he got to the house. The screen door screeched as he opened it and slammed shut as he dashed into the house.
“In here,” Ma called from the kitchen, “and how many times have I told you not to let that screen door slam? I have a cake in the oven.
He heard the mixer motor as he ran to the kitchen. “I found a bat! It’s alive, but I think it is hurt.”
Ma looked up from the icing she was making. “Did you touch it?”
“No…not with my hands. I used a stick to push it and see if it was still alive.”
She slowed the mixer as she pulled it out of the bowl. She frowned at him. “Were you in the cave?”
Ah, he could tell the truth. “No. I looked at it, but I remembered your word of the day.”
Ma smiled. “I didn’t think you understood.”
“What are we going to do about the bat? We can’t just leave it there, can we?”
“No. The cake is almost done. Let me put this icing in the refrigerator and we’ll find a box to put the bat in.”
When they returned to the place where he found the bat, it was still there. Mom had put a clean towel in the box and brought an oven mitt to pick up the bat. She put it in the box and they carried it back to the house. She put a little water in the lid of a milk jug and placed it in the box. Then she punched little holes in the box so the bat could breathe. After that, she threw the mitt in the washer and washed her hands.
“Now we need to call and find out where we can take it for treatment.”
“Can we keep it?”
“No. We’re not trained to take care of wildlife. Let’s go look on the internet and find the number to call.”
Ma made several calls before she finally found the right person to contact. She described the bat to a woman and she said it was an Ozark Big-Eared Bat. It was on an endangered species list. The woman would come pick up the bat. She wanted to see the place where they found it.
While they were waiting, they looked up some information about the bat. Ma pulled up a site and started reading.
“It says they grow to be four inches long and have one-inch ears.” She looked at Zane. “My, what big ears you have. All the better to hear you with.”
Zane laughed and she read more. “Oh my! The wing span is twelve to thirteen inches! And it has mitten shaped facial glands on either side of its nose.”
Zane laughed again. “Is that why you used a mitten to pick it up?”
She read where they have one “pup” in May or June. Bats were mammals…who knew? They nursed their babies and the baby was old enough live on its own when it was only two months old.
All that was interesting enough but when she got to the part about what it ate, Zane was amazed. A bat could eat six to twelve hundred mosquitoes or other insects in one night – up to 4,500 if it was a mother nursing babies. They ate grasshoppers, cucumber beetles, corn earworm moths and all kinds of insects.
Ma stopped reading and stared at the screen. “You see. This is what I mean. The reason they are on the endangered species list is because of humans invading caves.
Zane leaned over her shoulder and looked at the picture on the page. If it could eat that many mosquitoes in a night and ate all those insects that destroyed their garden, they needed to have more of them around, not less. When the lady arrived to pick up the bat, they took her to the place where Zane found the bat.
She looked up into each tree and finally pointed. “Right there – a bird’s nest. It probably came too close and the bird attacked it.” She looked around at the trees and the bluffs. “This is an ideal habitat for it – lots of hardwoods, especially hickory and maple. There must be a cave nearby.”
“I’ll show it to you,” Zane said, and lead her to the cave. “Do you want to go in?”
She smiled. “No, and I hope you don’t go in there.”
He shook his head. “No. Ma says to never go into a cave, because you might destroy their ecosystem.”
She gave Ma a satisfied smile. “That’s correct.”
“Have you ever been in a cave?” Zane asked her.
She nodded. “Yes, before I learned more about animals.” She looked at Zane. “God gave us dominion over the animals, and with that came responsibility.”
When Pa came home, they told him all about their discovery. At first, he wanted to destroy the colony because they could carry rabies. Ma told him that they could, but usually didn’t. She told him what the woman had said about bats.
He thought about the part where man was given dominion. “I suppose that’s right. I never thought about it that way.” He looked at Zane. “I think it would be a good idea to block off that cave so no one goes into it. Why use insecticide on the garden when we have our own little bat colony?”
Of course, Ma had been the one who insisted on no insecticide on the garden. She said if you were going to do that, you might as well go to the store and buy food. Pa had been the one who argued that she should use insecticide so she would get more out of the garden.
Pa looked at Zane. “It’s important to think about our fellow humans, and even consider our species first, but your mother is right. Taking care of animals is our responsibility, and humans benefit from it too.”
Zane glanced at Ma. He expected her to say that we shouldn’t just take care of the animals because it benefited humans, but she just smiled at Pa. Maybe it didn’t matter why we took care of the Earth – just as long as we did it.