On a quiet dead-end street near the center of Keene is a big beige house with walnut-colored shutters. It has a small front yard with a few bunches of wildflowers, but there’s not much that sets it apart from all the other homes in the neighborhood.
For that, you have to take a look in the basement.
On Thursday, Joyce Bemis knelt in front of a tall mesh cage, reaching down into a plastic bin. She pulled out a pink blanket and peeled back the folds of fleece to reveal a furry face the size of a thumb. His species is called big brown bat, but, fully grown, he’s still small enough to fit in one hand.
“He’s very sweet,” she said, gently stretching out a paper-thin wing.
It’s quiet in the basement, a space reserved for the nocturnal animals who need a calm environment during the day. At 6 p.m., the cages appeared to be empty as the critters were burrowed deep under blankets, lulled by the sound of the furnace.
As of that evening, Bemis, 57, was sharing her home with 11 gray squirrels, two red squirrels, five possums, three deer mice, three bunnies and two house cats, Milo and Otis, all dispersed across different levels of the house. Bemis is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and provides a temporary home to sick and injured animals, nursing them to health before releasing them back into the wild.
Born in Pueblo, Colo., Bemis moved to Keene when she was still a toddler. She was 8 or 9 years old the first time she rescued an animal, a squirrel near her home. She said she hid the animal in her bedroom so her mom wouldn’t see it, keeping the critter in an old wire hamster cage. She would also take in mice and stray cats.
“But that was the extent of it, my mother wouldn’t let me have anything else,” Bemis said. Caring for possums, bats and the occasional skunk would come later in life.
Bemis attended Keene High School and took a few classes at Keene State College, until, as she put it, “life took a hold” and she left school.
During her time at Keene State, she took several chemistry classes, which led her to a career as a chemical technician.
“I went right into the [research and development] department. Started in the basic and low-level stuff, and then you kind of learn, you get experience, you just move on up the ranks.”
She spent 25 years as a chemical technician at Markem Imaje in Keene before taking a job at Polyonics in Westmoreland just over a year ago. Polyonics makes the code for bar-code labels that go on computer chips in phones.
Bemis said she enjoys her work as a chemical technician, but about 10 years ago, she developed a passion for a world far removed from the industrial nature of her workplace.
She found a baby squirrel and had no idea what to do with it. When she asked around, someone suggested she bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator. She brought the critter to Deborah Gode at Winchester Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
“I had no idea what she did, but going up to that facility and seeing what she did — it was the coolest thing I ever saw.”
A few months later, she brought an injured bird to the facility. After chatting with Gode for a while, she decided her next visit would be in a different capacity — as a volunteer.
Parallel to the trajectory of her career as a chemical technician, she began with the basics and hands-on training — namely, cleaning cages. But she was devoted, going to the facility three times a week and on the weekends.
Bemis eventually got pre-exposure rabies shots so she could begin handling species that might be carrying the disease. This was when she first encountered bats — but it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
“There’s this big thing that people hate bats. I was one of them, I was scared to death of them. The first bat I fed, it was like — Oh my god, I was nervous. I put, like, three layers of gloves on and everything.”
But before long, she felt drawn to the bats. She developed a soft spot for the maligned creatures.
“People just give them a bad rap. They have faces like a little puppy.”
Bemis said Gode became one of her closest friends. A typical girls’ weekend might include going on rescues, combing through the vegetation off the side of a busy road, looking for an injured porcupine someone had reported.
After volunteering in Winchester for three years, Gode pointed out that Bemis had definitely spent more than 200 hours volunteering under a licensed rehabilitator, which qualified her to get her own license.
Gode, who has been volunteering as a wildlife rehabilitator for over 20 years, said that in addition to loving animals, Bemis had the key qualities of a good rehabber.
“She puts the animals’ interests first,” Gode said.”... [She has] the right personality to recognize that the animal is meant to be wild, not a pet.”
Bemis decided that she did want wildlife to be an even bigger part of her life and invested thousands of dollars in cages and medical supplies. N.H. Fish and Game inspected her at-home facility and granted her a license just over six years ago.
Though they now have separate facilities, Bemis and Gode still often work together. Bemis will refer raccoons to Gode, and Gode will direct bat calls to Bemis.
Bemis feels bats are misunderstood by the public, and the more she learned about the winged mammal, the more she realized just how skewed many people’s perception of bats is.
There a few things Bemis wants people to know about them: They aren’t blind, less than 1 percent of the bat population carries rabies, they’re not going to dive at your head and get stuck in your hair, and they’re not going to suck your blood.
Bemis said Christmastime is when many people will call her about bats. Bats will often spend their winters in attics, and when people go up to rummage around for holiday decorations, they can disturb the bats out of their hibernation. Being awake with no bugs to eat in the dead of winter, bats will starve to death or die by dehydration.
“When I get them, sometimes it’s heartbreaking seeing them, the condition that they’re in ... but if you can get them past that brink, and get them healthy again, it makes you feel so good.”
But wildlife rehabilitation is more than just providing a few snacks and a warm place to ride out the winter. Bemis said it’s hard work that takes a lot of time.
On a typical day, Bemis wakes up at 4:30 a.m. — “I make sure I have my coffee first” — and then sets to work preparing breakfast for more than two dozen critters. Then she gets herself ready for work, feeds the animals, goes to work, returns home during her lunch break for another feeding, drives back to work to finish the day, arrives home to feed all the animals again, and then cleans their cages, wrapping up at about 6:30 p.m.
Bemis said some bats just aren’t interested in eating, so she has to cut the heads off mealworms, squeeze the innards out into a syringe, and use that to feed them. To buy enough fresh vegetables for the squirrels, she visits the grocery store three times a week. And on top of everything, she addresses all the medical needs the animals might have.
“I get exhausted. There are some days I will cry, because I’m so tired, overwhelmed. Like I have this baby that’s broken and I don’t know how to fix it and it makes me sad and I get upset.”
When she finds herself in this frame of mind, she phones a friend.
“I call Deb, and she talks me back off the ledge.”
There’s a financial toll, too. With no state funding, everything Bemis needs to keep her rehabilitation going — medical supplies, cleaning products, food — is largely paid for out of pocket.
“I spend more on the animals than I do myself,” she said laughing, adding that most wildlife rehabilitators would relate to that.
She’ll sometimes get donations, usually from the people who bring her animals, but she said this year donations have been especially few and far between.
“We take care of animals just like we’re nurses”, she said. “It’s hard to describe all that we go through all day.”
Bemis has two granddaughters, Emma Batchelder, 16, and Ava Batchelder, 12. When they were younger, the girls would help her feed the animals. Besides that, Bemis isn’t particularly inclined to invite volunteers into her home to help care for the animals.
Now that the weather is getting warmer, it’s coming time to release the animals that Bemis rescued over the past several months. She has a friend with 17 acres of land in Marlborough who lets her release animals there. If she’s releasing a bat that was found in Keene, she’ll sometimes release it from her yard. There’s a bat colony in her neighborhood, and she’ll sit on her porch on nice summer nights to watch them, hoping some might have been critters she cared for.
It’s not always easy saying goodbye. Two months ago, one of Bemis’ rescued bats gave birth to twin pups.
“You get attached to the little tiny ones, and it’s like when they grow up and you release them, it tugs at your heart.”
Despite the exhaustion and occasional heartbreak, Bemis said she doesn’t see herself stopping any time soon.
“I think of it — this is gonna sound funny — I think of them like my children. That they need me, and I have to do it because nobody else is going to, so that’s my motivation. I need to help the animals. They need me.”