Israel's batwoman works in secret to heal winged friends

ELLA VALLEY, Israel - Call her Israel's batwoman.

She works in secret, out of an erstwhile chicken coop in central Israel that has become shelter to hundreds of fruit bats being nursed back to health for various ailments.

Amid the bats' high-pitched chatter, Nora Lifschitz, a purple-haired 29-year-old and longtime animal rights activist, says it is their eyes that penetrate her soul.

"When bats are hurt, something in their eyes becomes like a Disney cartoon. It breaks your heart, and then and there you say 'I'll die for you'," she said.

Lifschitz had since 2014 taken fruit bats in need of rehabilitation and sanctuary into her Tel Aviv apartment, where they would receive medical treatment and care from her and volunteers.

But as their numbers grew and they dominated her home, forcing her to keep her windows and doors shut at all times, she realised she needed a new and bigger space.

An Internet campaign by her group Atalef (Hebrew for bat and an acronym for "help and treatment of fruit bats") yielded funds.

And an appeal for a new home was answered in the form of a small, tin-walled chicken coop in an unassuming town far from Tel Aviv in the Ella Valley, near Beit Shemesh.

The bats are held in two large areas delineated by nylon mesh walls within the coop, ropes stretching across the ceiling for the benefit of the creatures and to hold stuffed dolls that also serve as hanging points.

The floor is covered with droppings and rotting fruit, discarded by the bats after they suck the juice from their food, and the smell is powerful in the heat of summer.

They hang upside-down in thick clusters like over-ripe fruit, many of them with mouths open.

Two teen girls were helping Lifschitz care for the bats, gently feeding baby formula through needle-less syringes while the small creatures hung to their shirts upside down, crates of unopened fruit and cages for transferring the bats lying all around.

Lifschitz moved into the coop along with about 100 bats from her Tel Aviv home.

In recent days, she has received around 260 bats that had been living in a now-demolished building in Hadera, a coastal city between Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Lifschitz says she wants to keep the site of the shelter secret to prevent people from harassing the bats or dropping off other unwanted pets, as well as keep the authorities at bay.

Fruit bats are considered pests in Israel and are not afforded the protection from authorities as other wild creatures, she said.

Her love of the small and unprotected mammals is perhaps even stronger because of that.

"They have those big eyes, like Disney characters, sad eyes," said Lifschitz, who financed part of the project with her own money.

They can be canine-like with their loyalty and obedience, but also feline-like in their disregard of people when they're not in the mood for humans, she said.

The agriculture ministry couldn't give an exact number of fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) in Israel, but noted its legal status as "harmful" to farming.

The ministry however said it prevented harm to the bats by avoiding applying powerful pesticides to fruit, using protective nets instead, and refraining from "poisoning caves" that were home to bats.

They noted an increase in the bats' numbers, which "primarily harm lychee and dates".

Lifschitz called the definition "outdated" since the bats only ate perfectly ripe fruit, while Israeli farmers picked it early to extend its shelf life.

Fruit bats are social and wild mammals, she said, so after their condition improves, they are sent back to nature in a "slow release" process.

"You open a window, let them in and out until they feel safe enough to leave for good," she said.

Lifschitz's and the bats' unlikely landlord is Shimon, a man in his early 40s born and bred in the village, a third generation to farmers, who saw the appeal by Nora's group and decided he wanted to help.

"I didn't entirely understand what it meant. I didn't know anything about bats beforehand, but now I'm really into them," he said.

Shimon has plans to plant mature fruit trees near the coop with a mesh tunnel enabling the bats to feed on them.

To him, helping Nora and the bats is also a way of making amends for the period in which his coop was a place to raise chickens for killing.

"Nowadays this is a place that only does animals good," he said.