San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bats are in danger, and they could use some help from kids


You’re probably aware that giant pandas, rhinos and Asian elephants are disappearing from the wild. But the problems these large but cute animals face are getting a lot of attention from adults and kids alike, so hopefully their numbers will rebound.

There’s an animal that lives much closer to home that is also dying in large numbers. Would you be surprised to find out that not a lot of people are coming to its defense? In addition to fighting for its life, this animal is also battling old wives’ tales and an image problem. As you have guessed by the pictures, we’re talking about a bat.

It’s not surprising that myths have hung around about a flying animal that comes out only at night. People don’t have much interaction with them. So false information continues to be passed along.

“It’s a common misconception that bats want to roost in your hair,” said Katie Coiner, an animal keeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, in the United States. Coiner cares for the 172 Seba’s short-tailed bats at the zoo. She says zoo visitors sometimes get anxious when they see her inside the enclosure with the bats.

“They’re not something to be scared of,” said Coiner, who admitted that she wasn’t a bat lover as a child.

Another myth you may have heard is that most bats have rabies. Any wild animal can have rabies, but few do. (To be safe, it’s best not to touch any animal you don’t know.) What about the story that bats suck human blood? Not true. Even vampire bats — which are not found in the United States — don’t suck blood; they lick it.

The zoo aims to tell bats’ true story by hosting its first International Bat Day on August 24. The event will feature chats with keepers and other bat-related activities. It will also spread the word that bats’ survival is being threatened by disease and fewer places to nest.

With featherless wings, big ears and pointy teeth, bats don’t always look cute in photographs. But bat rescuer and educator Leslie Sturges says that kids who meet a bat at one of her talks are charmed by the furry creatures.

“It’s always ‘awww,’ ” said Sturges, who spoke to 4,000 kids about bats last year. “No one ever sees their faces. They’re adorable.”

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Bat researcher and educator Leslie Sturges stays up late to feed and rehabilitate about 25 bats at her home in Annandale, Virginia, on July 22. Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Sturges said kids often ask personal questions about the bats, such as their names and why she is taking care of them. Sturges has been trained to care for injured and orphaned bats. When they are healthy, she returns them to the wild. At the moment, she has 30 in the basement and back yard of her Annandale home.

Learning the bats’ stories creates a connection, Sturges said.

“Kids have a lot of empathy,” she said. “Bats and kids go together.”

Regardless of whether you think bats are cute, they are useful.

“Bats are extremely important to the ecosystem,” Coiner said. “Here in Maryland, they help keep control of the mosquito population.”

A little brown bat can eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. They also feast on beetles and moths, which can damage vegetable gardens and farm crops.

The Seba’s short-tailed bats, which are common in Latin America, are among those species that help pollinate plants.

“Without bats, there would be a lot less crops,” Sturges said.

They’re also interesting animals. More than 1,200 species include bats as small as an inch (the bumblebee bat) and those with a six-foot wingspan (the flying fox bat). They are the only mammal that can fly. Even though they are mostly small animals, they live a long time — 20 to 30 years.

One of the coolest bat features is how they get around at night. They navigate by making sounds that bounce off objects and let bats know how far away those objects are, a process called echolocation. (They aren’t blind. That’s another myth.)

Sturges noted several other qualities that have fascinated her since she began studying bats in college.

“They’re really tiny, but they’re super smart,” Sturges said. “I like the socialness of most of them. They have friends. They have language.” (Bats use a series of buzzes, clicks and trills to communicate with one another.)

Sturges said she tries to use those qualities to help kids relate to bats.

“All those things connect them to the way we live,” she said. “I tell them that the challenges that they face, those are the same challenges that bats face.”

One serious challenge that is unique to bats is white-nose syndrome. This disease was discovered around 2006 on bats in caves in New York. Since then, it has killed more than 5 million hibernating bats, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The disease comes from a fungus that infects bats’ wings, ears and face, and it causes bats to wake up early from their hibernation. Without enough insects flying around in winter, the bats usually starve to death.

“It’s really a hard thing to watch happen,” Sturges said. “Half the bats in North America are cave-dependent.”

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Bat researcher and educator Leslie Sturges wears a spotlight on her head but turns off all other lights before she feeds about 25 bats at her home in Annandale, Virginia, on July 22. Many of those bats were found injured on streets and brought to her home by those who found them. Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

No treatment is available because scientists are still trying to figure out why the fungus is causing the disease.

Conservationists and scientists have been watching it spread at an alarming rate. It has moved south and west, now into 22 states. And it is affecting additional species — including the little brown bats that live in the Washington area and the Virginia big-earned bat, the official state bat.

Bats that don’t hibernate have problems, too. Their habitats are disappearing. Wooded areas with hollow trees used for nesting are often cleared to make room for houses and office buildings. Sturges said she has helped bats that have been hit by cars and those that have been injured by cats or other wildlife.

Both Coiner and Sturges said kids can help save bats.

“If people learn to care about the bats themselves,” Coiner said, ” . . . that can hopefully lead to action, maybe personally or maybe on a broader scale.”

Kids can build boxes for bats to nest in outside. They can keep outdoor lights low. They can also be a voice for bat protection.

“We really want kids to take ownership of wildlife decisions,” Sturges said. “Let the adult world know that they care.”

© 2013, The Washington Post

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