Going to bat for bats

Naturalists say we need to ground our fear of the mysterious flying creatures. What better time than Halloween to start?


They've been burned out of their homes, mauled by cats and smashed by car antennae. At best, they're largely forgotten -- until they show up at this time of year as scary Halloween decorations.

In the real world, bats are more menaced than menacing. In fact, they're constantly being killed off by natural and man-made threats.

No one knows this better than Leslie Sturges, a park naturalist at the Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda and one of a handful of wildlife volunteers who specialize in caring for injured bats. If a bat in the Maryland-Washington D.C. area has been hurt, Sturges is as likely as anyone to get the call.

"She's one of the few people out there who will nurse them back to health," said Dana Limpert, the Department of Natural Resources wildlife specialist who handles bat inquiries.

Sturges gets hundreds of calls every year. Since 2001, she has rescued about 50 of the animals annually, collecting bats found along roads and in backyards and attics.

When they're stranded but healthy, she releases them - always within a half-mile of where they were found. "You want to keep them in the area that's familiar to them," she said.

But when a bat is seriously injured, she brings it to her Annandale, Va., home, where she feeds it mealworms and an occasional cricket while it recuperates. Restoring a bat can take weeks or months, and the round flight cage in her backyard, 12 feet in diameter, can hold up to 24 of the creatures.

The 44-year-old bat doctor is unpaid, has a "very understanding" husband and approaches her subject with the down-to-earth enthusiasm of a veteran high school science teacher. She says she does all this for one reason: "I find bats fascinating."

Rick Sturges, 44, a design engineer for the Navy, said his wife has always loved animals and kept snakes, turtles and geckoes before she took up bats about five years ago. He supports her efforts, but makes it a point not to get rabies shots so his wife won't ask him to do more with the animals.

"They don't creep me out or anything," he said. "But to be honest, I don't go back there much."

As scary as bats are to many of us, in reality they're relatively fragile and subject to injuries - most commonly tears in the wing membrane. Hawks, crows and blue jays are major predators. Birds will also fly at bat nests and take a baby bat when it falls to the ground.

Cats and cars are also enemies. Cats pounce on low flying bats, snaring them in their claws. Feral cats in parks are a particular problem.

"I get cat-caught bats all the time, and it's nasty. They don't live," Sturges said. "Bats haven't evolved to deal with the cat. They're used to predators coming at them from the air above."

Bats also confuse car antennae with prey. They pursue the antennae as if it were an insect and wind up being smashed by them when it turns out that the car is moving much faster than the prey they normally chase.

"They're not used to insects moving at 60 miles an hour," Sturges said, who also is a volunteer for Bat World, a national network dedicated to bat conservation.

Sturges has been bitten many times and gets rabies booster shots twice a year. She wears heavy gardener's gloves when she handles a bat, but that doesn't stop the pain, which can be like the prick from a splinter.

"It's a myth that bat bites don't hurt, they do," she says.

Her advice for those who encounter a bat: Leave it alone. If it's a potential nuisance, approach and handle it the way you would handle a spider: use gloves and throw a box, container or cage over it. Then call a professional.

Sturges handles a bewildering variety of bat calls. A homeowner from Fairfax, Va., opened the umbrella over her picnic table this summer and three tiny, baby brown myotis bats fell out of it.

The mother bats tried to return, but by then the homeowner had put the babies in a partially enclosed box, where the mothers couldn't get to them. They ended up at Sturges' home.

Another recent caller mentioned that her teenage daughter had found a bat in the house and was keeping it in her bedroom. That's a no-no.

"These are wild animals - you can't keep them like pets," Sturges said.

She releases about 70 percent of the bats people bring her. Some bats are too weak to survive in the wild, and she ends up keeping them for their own safety. She currently has 10 bats, seven of which she uses for educational talks and three of which she is rehabilitating.

In a talk this week at Adventure Conservation Park in Potomac, Sturges gave fellow naturalists tips on how to promote bats to the public - an event organized by Washington-area park naturalists because of the interest in bats at Halloween.

"If you're going to talk about bats, it's good to have a bat skeleton," Sturges says, displaying one in her PowerPoint presentation. "People say, `They're just like humans,' and that's what you want."

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