Annandale woman specializes in caring for bats

If a bat gets into trouble in or around Northern Virginia, it likely will end up in Leslie Sturges’s care.

Sturges has been rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned, injured and sick bats in her Annandale home for 11 years. She is one of three wildlife rehabilitators in Virginia who specialize in bats.

“Hands down, in this area, she is the top in the field,” said Sherry Keen of Fairfax Station, who volunteered as Sturges’s apprentice and is licensed to rehab bats in her home.

Sturges also runs the nonprofit Save Lucy Campaign, to educate people about bats and the disease that is threatening to wipe out some North American bat species, known as white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that is usually lethal.

The “Lucy” of the Save Lucy Campaign is a character used to represent little brown bats and share their story. She has an online storybook and her a blog at www.savelucythebat.org.

Sturges, who works as a park naturalist for the Montgomery County Department of Parks in Maryland, said it is hard to pinpoint when her fascination with bats began. She always was interested in the “unlovable” fauna, such as insects and snakes, and somewhere along the way she began soaking up all of the information she could find about bats.

“It was eye-opening to see the diversity of the species,” she said. There are an estimated 1,100 bat species worldwide, according to the Bat Conservation Trust.

She ultimately ended up attending a “boot camp” at the Bat World Sanctuary in Texas to learn about rehabilitation. She now runs one of Bat World’s partner rescue groups, Bat World NOVA.

An average of 50 or 60 bats a year spends some time in Sturges’s rescue, which consists of some cages in her basement and an enclosed flying area in her back yard, for bats that are ready to test their wings. Several other volunteers help her care for the bats.

Donations from volunteers and other supporters and fees from the educational programs fund the bat care. It costs about $2,500 per year to take care of the bats, most of which is for mealworms, the bats’ primary food source in captivity. Medical care is provided free by veterinarians.

Sturges can get calls at all hours of the day from people looking for her help with a bat.

“We’re not available 24/7, but we do the best we can,” she said.

Many of the bats that come her way are orphaned babies that need to be fed every few hours with a formula that mimics bat milk. The formula costs about $20 per batch, but Sturges said she only uses about two or three batches during baby season, because they grow so fast. They start eating ground mealworms once they are a few weeks old.

Orphans are generally able to be released, once they are mature enough, in a few weeks to a couple of months.

“The best part of rehab is release,” Keen said. “The more we release, the more that they’re hopefully going to go out there and have offspring.”

Adult bats, on the other hand, “come in more broken,” Sturges said. The culprits can include car strikes, cats, high-wind nights or being trapped indoors. Many are too injured to save and have to be euthanized, Sturges said.

“Whenever we can, we try to save them, even if it means surgical intervention,” she said.

Bats that can’t be rehabilitated enough to be released back into the wild — generally because they can’t fly and therefore can’t feed themselves — end up in Sturges’s education collection and help her with the Save Lucy Campaign programs.

She does about 30 educational programs per year for children and adult organizations.

White-nose syndrome, the main focus of the Save Lucy Campaign, is beginning to affect the local migratory bat species that overwinter in caves, particularly the little brown bat. Sturges said she hasn’t had a little brown come through her door for four years, which is concerning to her.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates more than 5.5 million bats have died from white-nose syndrome since 2006.

Habitat loss also is contributing to the decline in bat populations, she said.

Most people generally are unaware of the threats to bats and don’t understand how important they are to human agriculture, Sturges said. Bats help pollinate plants and eat millions of bugs, reducing the number of insects feeding on plant materials.

Many people also are unnecessarily afraid of bats, Sturges said, noting that the largest bat native to this region weighs an ounce and could fit in a human palm.

“Bats do not attack humans,” Sturges said, adding she always is mystified when people feel they need to attack a bat with a broom or tennis racket to capture it.

Only half of a percent of bats contract rabies, and those that do will quickly die, because of their small size, she said.

“Education is key,” Keen said, adding she knew little about bats before she started volunteering with Sturges. “I was really surprised at how stinkin’ cute they are.”

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