Controversy over endangered Virginia big-eared bats

One of the zoo's Virginia big-eared bats. The green substance on its ear is identification paint.
One of the zoo's Virginia big-eared bats. The green substance on its ear is identification paint. (Courtesy of Singleton Consulting)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

The idea was for the National Zoo to establish a captive colony of endangered Virginia big-eared bats to shield them from a deadly epidemic and ensure that there would be survivors should the wild population be destroyed.

But five months after the project began, most of the bats in the colony are dead, and a consultant hired by the zoo said it mishandled the animals and disregarded her advice that might have saved them.

"Mishandling of the bats resulted in broken fingers, soiled fur, skin infections . . . bruised legs . . . anorexia, capture myopathy and death," the consultant, Missy Singleton, wrote in a December report.

The zoo disputed the allegations, saying that the colony is experimental, that this sub-species of bat had never been held in captivity before and that many of Singleton's assertions are inaccurate.

Zoo scientists said there have been bruises, eating problems and fatal skin infections among the bats -- caused, essentially, by captivity, not from mishandling.

There have been no broken bones or capture myopathy, a dangerous malady that can come after a wild animal is caught, the zoo scientists said.

The zoo acknowledged that the efforts for the original 40-bat colony has been distressing. Another bat died Tuesday. Others are being treated.

And, said David E. Wildt, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., where the colony is housed, "We could lose the last 10 bats."

The controversy is being played out against the backdrop of the "white-nose syndrome," a fungus that has killed more than a million bats of various kinds in recent years throughout the Northeast. It does not infect humans.

The colony bats do not have the fungus, zoo officials said. They are mainly dying of blood infections that stem from skin abrasions and inflammations.

Last Monday, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility blamed the situation on the zoo's "ignorance and incompetence" and asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revoke the zoo's permit for the colony and transfer the surviving bats elsewhere.

Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the wildlife service's northeast region, said in an e-mail Thursday that the agency is investigating.

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