WASHINGTON -- Sweet Pea has a major image problem. She is a very gentle, friendly and helpful pet, but a lot of people call her a bloodsucker.
Sweet Pea is, of course, a bat -- a species that gets trashed every year about this time. Heidi Hughes, Sweet Pea's human owner, thinks that's unfair.
"She's so cute and adorable," says Ms. Hughes. "When you're up close with a bat, they have this ability to cast a spell on you."
Ms. Hughes is a co-founder of the American Bat Conservation Society, which is out to promote a kinder, gentler view of bats with a new National Bat Center set to open Monday on Halloween in Rockville.
"If Disney can turn a rodent into the most popular children's icon in the world, why can't we transform Sweet Pea and the image of bats?" Ms. Hughes asked.
The center will display live bats and teach bat conservation. It also will test demand for bat merchandise. Bat Christmas ornaments, bat Easter candy and, of course, Halloween garb will be on sale.
But bat conservation isn't only about turning Sweet Pea into the next Mickey Mouse. The number of bats in the United States is declining, a fact that worries groups such as Bat Conservation International, based in Austin, Texas.
According to the group, the major cause of the waning population is humans. People kill out of fear and use pesticides that bats swallow when they snack on mosquitoes and other insects. The result might be significant increases in insect populations, Ms. Hughes said.