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Flight of the Orphaned Bats
Fairfax Wildlife Rehabilitator Zealously Nurses Tiniest Creatures While Educating Squeamish Humans

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."

Sturges spends almost as much time battling the myths as she does caring for the animals. They are not blind. They are less likely to be carrying rabies than a raccoon or a skunk. They are not rodents. They have their own order -- chiroptera, or Latin for "hand wing" -- that evolved over 45 million years, perhaps from such insectivores as the shrew.

Those adaptations are impressive, too. Unlike birds, each elongated finger can alter the shape of a bat's wing and thus its airflow, allowing maximum maneuverability, said Michael R. Gannon, a professor at Penn State University. They also use their wings like baseball mitts to field bugs.

Their sonar -- delivered in rapid pulses -- will speed up and change in pitch as they lock in on a target. Adaptations such as these are why the military tried to transform bats into living bombs during World War II. And they are also what piqued Sturges's interest.

The basement of her Annandale home is like an ER, maternity ward and summer camp for bats. Past the refrigerator -- and its sign saying "BEER, BATS & BUGS" -- is a screened area for mature bats she uses in educational presentations at Montgomery County's Locust Grove Nature Center at Cabin John Regional Park, where she is employed as a naturalist.

"Because my ear is trained to hear it, I can hear them when they're talking to each other," Sturges said. "It's like a clicking. But when they're arguing, you can hear them two rooms away. It's a high-pitched screech."

When the birthing season was in full swing in June, Sturges was particularly busy. Especially when the temperature climbs, pups are sometimes jostled loose from their mothers' crowded roosts. They fall to the ground, are unable to climb back and become easy pickings for such predators as cats.

Other pups are brought to her by people who find her through Bat World or the Wildlife Rescue League. Every five hours, she must feed them milk with a syringe.

Some never recover and must be euthanized. Those that survive and learn to fly will go back to the wild. Others become performers in her educational presentations.

Cages hold the pups -- some no bigger than a thumb -- that she nurses until their release. Nearby, a small tub seethes with mealworms, which she buys 10,000 at a time.

Out back is the flight cage, built by her husband, Richard, a Naval architect. It is essentially a screened gazebo with the eerie glow of black lights to attract insects. A visitor peering through the screens can see a bat circling around as if being whirled at the end of a string.

Someone might be creeped out, if he wasn't also a little charmed, especially when Sturges looks in on a new arrival: a pup someone found clinging to a lawn chair.

Cupped in the palm of her gloved hand, it looks -- being generous here -- disgusting. The head, vaguely triangular, has little plummy splotches on each side where the eyes are still shut. The skin, stretched over the bones like a busted tent, is faintly pink. The entire pup is about as big as a quarter and resembles a wad of chewed bubble gum -- except that it is moving. It crawls across Sturges's palm, pulling itself along with the thumbs of its wings, opening its mouth in big gulps.

"He's trying to nurse on me," she says.

Flipping the pup onto its back, she shows why it can't really be hungry. A tiny white pouch, visible through the translucent skin, is proof that its belly is still full of milk.

As a girl, on camping trips with her parents or in the garden of her parents' home in Silver Spring, Sturges showed a fondness for snakes and lizards.

Now, bats -- real and symbolic -- fill her world. A twig wreath of bats hangs from her door knocker. On her ears are silver earrings of fruit bats in upside-down repose. Out in the driveway sits her bat mobile: a Toyota Scion -- black, naturally -- with "BAT RESQ" on the license plate.

Sturges said it was hard at first to keep her emotional distance from the rescue bats, wanting to keep some as pets. She still becomes fond of some pups, but she never forgets that they belong in the wild.

And so, recently, Sturges, her wheat-colored hair bunched up around a miner's light, stood in inky darkness preparing to say bon voyage to a few friends.

One of the bats skittered around and around her gloved hand. Then it fluttered its ragged black wings and was gone.

"It's just like this little shadow takes off, and you never see them again," she said.

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