Flight of the Orphaned Bats

(Jahi Chikwendiu)

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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007

Leslie Sturges's home in Fairfax County is infested with bats. Brown bats and red bats. Grumpy, full-grown bats and pups the size of a coin. They roost in the basement of her home. They zip around the gazebo-like structure in the back yard. There are dozens and dozens of the rubbery little aviators all over the place.

And that's just the way she wants it.

As head of Bat World NOVA and a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator, Sturges, 46, rescues orphans and cares for them. Since the beginning of the summer, she's been particularly busy, looking after day-old pups jostled loose from their roosts during the height of the birthing season in June and, more recently, caring for juveniles who ran into trouble after heading out on their own.

The lucky ones arrive on her doorstep in shoe boxes, like tiny gargoyles only a mother could love. Pale, blind, hairless, they greedily snap their yaps at just about anything that might give them a taste of milk.

Some, like children, will go off into the world. Others, also like children, never leave.

Dinah is one of those. Sturges reaches into a cage and plucks the shivering adult from its afternoon slumber. She strokes Dinah's shaggy back. She peers with devotion into its poppy seed eyes.

"You've got to see their faces," she said. "If you never see their faces, you'll never know they're cute."

Sturges is on to something. The notion that bats occupy an important niche has gained ground in recent years, and more and more people have taken to them with more than a tennis racket.

The University of Maryland's BatLab is studying the intricate mental circuitry that allows bats to echolocate, and the Air Force is funding a $6 million bat study in the hopes of developing new aviation technology. Several groups have formed to protect the animals, including Bat Conservation International and Bat World Sanctuary, to which Sturges belongs.

There are also Web sites with downloads of bat calls that have been technologically enhanced so people can hear the high-frequency sonar that allows bats to home in on a fruit fly or maneuver past a wire no thicker than a human hair. Aficionados can even buy the devices; a top-of-the-line D-240X Bat Detector is $1,275, for example.

But superstitions persist.

"There are still a good number of people who are afraid of them," said Brittany Davis, assistant director of Second Chance Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation center in Gaithersburg. "A small percentage of people will destroy them. They basically see them as flying mice."


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