In the darkness of night, N.Va.’s bat lady tends to her fragile wards
By Dan Zak,
A bit beyond the Beltway, as the Virginia suburbs creep toward wilderness, in a tranquil enclave of ranch-style homes called the Woods of Ilda, on a dead-end street cloaked by nightfall, over a porch and into a cute two-story home and down carpeted steps, through a cluttered rec room, beyond two sets of doors and a curtain of plastic sheeting, in a concrete-floored hideaway where the temperature is 82.2 degrees and the humidity is 56 percent, just past a refrigerator stocked with mealworms and Michelob Light, the bat lady is at work in the shadows.
She decapitates a squirming mealworm with her gloved thumb and feeds it with forceps to an injured, .014-ounce Eastern pipistrelle bat that probably was creamed by a car.
It is a sad, delicate scene.
The bat clicks its tiny teeth around the mealworm. When it was dropped off at the Sturges residence a week ago by someone who found it on the side of the road, the bat couldn’t spread its wings or lift its ears. Now it can kind of do both. And it’s eating enthusiastically.
“That’s my girl,” the bat lady says.
Leslie Sturges — 50, vibrant, funny, tender — rehabilitates bats: the orphaned, the injured, in small cages in what anyone else would call the laundry room but in this case is technically a regional rescue center and the headquarters for Save Lucy, a nonprofit Sturges started to raise awareness of white-nose syndrome, which is destroying North American bats.
The basement smells pretty good, considering. Only the faint whiff of guano (i.e., bat poop) and frass (i.e., bug poop).
It’s 10 p.m. Friday, and the bat lady’s husband, Rich, is watching the feeding routine with a stemless glass of red wine. He met Leslie at the Summit Point race track in West Virginia, back when he used to race motorcycles and she was a corner worker waving flags. He liked her because she was smart and funny and rejected him twice. She was into lizards and turtles then. Ten years ago, she got into bats.
“It’s made me crazy, hasn’t it?” Leslie asks, looking up from feeding a frisky bat named Jorge. Her eyes are magnified by rectangular glasses. Her headlamp shoots a beam of blue light at her husband.
“Yes,” says Rich, a naval architect.
Bat rehabilitation consumes the time outside her day job as a park naturalist in Montgomery County. During early summertime pup season, she’s up every three hours overnight for feedings. Other volunteers help with caregiving, but Leslie rarely goes on vacation, even for a weekend. The bats need her.
Something catches her eye. Two mealworm beetles are scurrying over a pile of laundry.
“They’ll lay eggs,” Leslie says. “We’ll put it through the wash. It’ll be fine.”
The feeding is “all very exciting, but after you’ve seen it a couple times it’s like, ‘I’m going to bed,’ ” Rich says.
In May, he finished building her a large, gazebo-like “fly cage” in their back yard after accumulating enough secondhand lumber from Craigslist. That, you might say, is love. Customized hot-pink plastic cups from their wedding reception (June 18, 1994) litter the basement. Leslie uses them for cleaning and for holding syringes.
After feeding the bats in the basement, she putters around the fly cage at the back of their property in the hot darkness. Big brown bats fly noiselessly in a circle, creating a vortex of shadows, brushing her cheeks. Her headlamp swishes around the cage, shining through pairs of soft, membranous wings.
The cage feels like a sauna. It’s all sweat and wings in here, an insectivorous ballet set to the hypnotizing song of cicadas. Leslie feeds her 25 patients small dishes of mealworms, talking to them as if they are toddlers or tweens.
“Are you all right, Norbert?. . . Hey pumpkin, how you doing? Trouble trouble trouble. . . . Kids? Hello! Hi, girlie. . . . Don’t fight with each other. Be nice.”
When they’re ready, she’ll reintroduce them into the wild.
Leslie loves underdog animals, the ones the public perceives as ugly or scary. A single recovery does not save a population, but bats’ troubles often have to do with the way humans live on the planet.
“So I kinda feel like we owe them,” she says.
Mammal helping mammal. Human nature as reciprocal, not reptilian. At least at Leslie’s house.
After the feeding in the fly cage, she pauses just outside its door and looks up at the midnight sky. She removes her headlamp, shakes out her hair, arches her neck, takes it all in. She loves to glimpse the dart of a wild bat, silhouetted against the universe.