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World's rarest bat finds a place at San Diego Zoo park

Reporting from San Diego -- Pteropus rodricensis was hanging upside down, doing some squeaking. That's mostly his daily routine, with occasional breaks to eat slices of fruit.

He's primarily a dusk-and-night mammal. That's when members of his species spread their wings in a 30-inch span for some low-level flying and maybe some ritualistic courting.

Arya Yari, 11, of San Diego was watching intently one day last week. He's kind of a bat expert, although until that day he'd never seen a Pteropus rodricensis, a.k.a. the Rodrigues fruit bat, which is native to an island near Madagascar and considered the rarest bat species in the world.

"Bats are not bad animals," Arya said with a no-nonsense tone. "They're peaceful animals, they're not rodents and they don't attack people unless in self-defense."

If young Arya was intense in his interest in the 13 Rodrigues fruit bats in the new exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the adults in the crowd seemed a bit standoffish.

"I'm a cat lover," said Amir Zarrin, a tourist from Utah. "Bats are just so different. They live in dark places, caves and they fly at you."

One of the goals of the exhibit is to repair bats' reputation. The Safari Park has not had bats since the mid-1990s.

"There are a lot of myths about bats," said senior keeper Todd Ryan, who tends the bats on the late shift when they are most active in their 500-square-foot enclosure.

A sign outside the enclosure says: "Give bats a place to live in your yard and they'll help control pesky mosquitoes."

Inside, the bats are separated from visitors by vertical strands of piano wire. Still, a small sign warns: "These Animals Bite."

The ears, snout and eyes have a fox-like appearance, hence the nickname "the flying fox" attached to the Rodrigues bat.

Only recently have the 13 newcomers emerged from routine quarantine. Zoo officials are hoping for reproduction, a five-month process for the average bat.

In the early part of the 20th century, fruit bats were ubiquitous on the island of Rodrigues in Mauritius. But with the onset of modernity, and a major cyclone, the Rodrigues fruit bat by the early 1980s was considered the rarest bat species in the world.

Rodrigues can be a tough place — species of owls, parrots, giant tortoises and a flightless heron have all disappeared.

The 13 fruit bats at the Safari Park, formerly known as the Wild Animal Park, came from the Bronx Zoo in New York and the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago under a plan to preserve the species. The San Diego Zoo is also contributing $2,000 a year to a bat conservation program on Rodrigues.

The Rodrigues bats, like other species of bats, have large eyes, acute hearing and a good sense of smell. When they are not flying or eating, they are hanging upside down.

"Some days they never stop moving," Ryan said. "Some days they never seem to wake up."

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