I don’t suppose there’s any other way to avoid running into an alligator, he said to himself, then plunged into the deep mount of bat shit that lined both sides of the creek. The excrement, dense and granular like wet sand, packed into his hands as he burrowed through the bottom of the cave.The leeches that boarded his sneakers on the way there — a drawn out, blistering climb through the tropical mountainside, punctuated by a torrential downpour — had set up camp inside his wet socks and nibbled gingerly on his ankles. It was going to be a long twenty meters.
– Did you hate your job that day? – I ask as we stroll through the bright, air-conditioned exhibition hall of the Museum. He giggles.
– I was just hoping to find some good specimens.
– Did you?
– Nope. Turned out, I’d already encountered and collected most of them a few days earlier in another part of the country.
– I didn’t need any of the specimens from that cave, save for one or two. When I finally made it out, I had to untangle and release all the bats from the net I’d set up at the exit before going in.
– How many were caught?
– Oh, I don’t know, a few hundred. It took me a while. The leeches got dessert that night.
Three concrete layers beneath the Earth’s surface, deep in the annals of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, you’ll find a man named Burton Lim. Burton is the ROM’s Assistant Curator of Mammalogy. He’s been here for almost 30 years, though he hardly ever hangs inside for more than a few months at a time. Burton spends the rest of his working hours getting scorched, drenched, or gnawed on while inching along the Earth’s most godforsaken terrains. The subjects of Burton’s expeditions: small mammals, mainly bats, that live in humble obscurity compared to other, more photogenic animals. His job: observe and document their lives and collect specimens for research. His mission: advance our understanding of the planet’s ecosystem. There are millions of new species waiting to be discovered, says Burton — imagine how much they could teach us about life on Earth.
Burton’s office is a 360-degree encyclopedia — one gets an education just by studying its contents. A pair of world maps is stretched out on one side. A Wild About Bats poster is pinned up on another, next to two matching ones of the Cats and Monkeys of the North Rupununi and the Iwokrama Forest. There’s a large dramatic portrait of a bat with a snout the size of a banjo. The rest of the walls are hidden behind towers of shelves stuffed with dusty, king-sized binders. A dead mouse rests on top of a filing cabinet in the corner. It’s actually a shrew, comforts me Burton. Burton himself wheels to and fro in his office chair with a firm command of the chaos he’s carefully devised over the past three decades. He’s a compact, sturdy, no-frills man with a warm glint in his eyes. But he speaks with an apparent precision and intent of a scientist.
– Do you have any credentials? – He asks when I finish my introductory pitch. – A prospectus with your work? A list of publications and credits?
Despite his skepticism, Burton agrees to meet again and we soon settle with our Guinness at a pub across the street from the ROM.
– Burton, after so many years of researching and observing the bat, do you ever feel like you know this animal so well that you…embody it?
– You mean do I feel possessed? Like I’m one with the bat or something?
There go the giggles, again. And another thought bubble — illegible this time, but I can guess the meaning. I attempt a rebound with a more grownup inquiry.
– What’s so special about bats?
– Everything, really. The bat’s been around for over fifty million years. And its fifty-million-year-old fossil looked pretty close to how the bat looks today. Which suggests it was here as early as the dinosaurs. And it’s still here, having adapted and survived through millions of years of the evolution. But what I find most interesting about bats is the number of species, almost 1,200. And this is an underestimate of about 25 percent. There are many, many more. It’s amazing to me that we still don’t know something as seemingly basic as how many bat species are there.
I nod and wonder if anyone else agrees that knowing the number of existing bat species qualifies as something basic.
– How many new species have you personally identified?
– Seven species of bats. One of opossum, in Guyana, but that one’s not official yet.
– Burton, in all these remote places, you must meet some unusual people. Has mammal research led you to any unexpected discoveries about humans?
– A good part of my fieldwork relies on help and guidance from the locals. Sometimes, I find myself in pretty unthinkable scenarios. Those experiences don’t end up in research reports.
– In those locations, do you get treated like an intruder? A novelty? Both?
– I’m generally welcome in most places. Sometimes, I get tested on my own adaptability. Like the time I got coerced into joining a drinking contest in Northern Vietnam. It all started innocently enough, until someone produced a suspiciously large vessel, a clay urn of sorts, which was filled with what was possibly the strongest, most putrid moonshine known to man. There were two long bamboo straws at the top of the jug. I was told to take one of the straws. A young woman sat in front of the other. I gathered this was a drinking race so I clung to my straw and got going. By the time I realized I was the only one drinking, it was too late – I couldn’t stand up.
– I suppose nothing could prepare you for a jumbo jug of Vietnamese moonshine. Or for alligators and leeches and mounts of bat shit for that matter.
– I try to be prepared for anything. That reminds me, I’d better start getting in shape for my trip to Borneo. This one’s going to be an adventure. Five weeks on a mountain, setting up camp at different elevations.
– Is it hard coming back to Canada from something so intense and exotic?
– I’ve been changing my environments for thirty years. I’m used to it.
– Adaptable, like a bat.
– You may say that.
Outside Burton’s office is an impenetrable maze of hallways and stairwells. Lockers filled with 60 year-old dried bats. Heads of rhinos, buffalos, antelopes and moose, pensively staring from behind air ducts. A fridge locker filled with hundreds of skins – from zebras to wolves to polar bears. Just next door, a miniature warehouse, with a sign on the door, “Alcoholics Only”, that houses reptiles, rodents, fish, bats and other creatures, gutted and pickled in jars with yellowing ethyl alcohol. One of those jars slipped out of my hand as I was propping it for a photo. A family of skinned dissected bats spilled out on the carpet. Unfazed, Burton picked them all up and stuffed their little bodies back in the jar. Going to refill it with alcohol, he said and glided out of the room.
Thousands of feet stomp above Burton’s head every day. Thousands more trek through the bat cave he helped design for the ROM’s mammal exhibit. The cave is dark, filled with specimens and shrills of underage children. It’s a replica of the one Burton visited in Jamaica. It’s accurate, he maintains, especially the intrusion of cockroaches surging down one section’s floor.
– If you’d known what you were getting into when you started this job, would you have still taken it?
– As long as I got to travel.
Off he flies, Mr Burton Lim, an obscure researcher on a quest to find new species and learn more about life on Earth. This batman doesn’t wear a cape or drive a souped up rocket-car. He’s no billionaire vigilante, who speaks in a metallic whisper and moves like an invisible shadow. Burton trails through thick tropical forests and dark, dripping caves, elbow-deep in dung and leeches, armed with a headlamp and a hunger for discovery. But when he speaks, the world of bats suddenly unravels in front of you, and a light shines on the obscure, mysterious creature, whose contribution to life on Earth is, much like Burton’s, vastly underestimated.