Controversy over endangered Virginia big-eared bats

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; B01

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 subspecies 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.

"All information we have received from the Smithsonian so far leads us to believe they are doing everything they can to care for the remaining bats," she wrote. "At this time, we do not feel it is appropriate to move the remaining bats. Moving them would cause additional stress."

The trouble stems from the wildlife service's discussions last year with numerous agencies about a possible sanctuary colony to spare some of the big-eared bats from catching the devastating disease.

Although white-nose syndrome had not then killed any of the bats -- and still, apparently, has not -- experts feared it would eventually.

They are homely little creatures -- smaller than a sparrow -- with furry bodies and big, pointed ears.

Bats are major consumers of mosquitoes and other pests, and any threat to them is worrisome, experts said. The wildlife service has said that there are only about 15,000 Virginia big-eared bats in existence and that if the disease strikes them, "this bat subspecies could likely become extinct."

The term white-nose syndrome reflects the fungus that collects on the bat's muzzle, in addition to other areas, experts said. It depletes fat reserves and causes bats to starve. It was first found in Upstate New York in 2006 and has spread as far as Virginia and Tennessee.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute was the only organization to respond to the colony idea, zoo and wildlife officials said. "We knew it was high-risk," said Wildt, the institute scientist. "We knew that there was the possibility of mortality ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent."

Last fall, the zoo hired Singleton, a Texas-based expert, for a three-week stint as a consultant.

Singleton said Tuesday that her stay was fraught with tension. In her report, she criticizes how the bat holding cage was constructed, how the bats were fed and how they were being cared for. She said that poor injection techniques caused bats to "cry out" and that twice, needles entered the gloves of the person holding the bat during injections.

"I was outwardly saying, 'You're making wrong decisions. This is going to cause a bat to die,' " she said.

The zoo said it was unaware of most of Singleton's allegations until the day she left and has sought to refute them.

Staff veterinarian Luis R. Padilla said the cages were built with a plastic mesh size that was approved for such use, although it has now been replaced by mesh with smaller holes. And, he said, bats often "vocalize" when they are held.

He said he was unaware that workers' gloves were pricked by needles. He said workers are supposed to report such things but might not have. He said zoo experts did often disagree with Singleton's observations and advice. "There was always a reason," Padilla said.

Both sides seemed to have the bats' welfare at heart. "In no way would I say the Smithsonian wanted to kill these bats," Singleton said. "What should have been done wasn't done."

Padilla said: "We take it very seriously that they get sick. We take it very seriously that they die. We put in incredible numbers of hours. . . . We take every individual bat very seriously."

Meanwhile, state officials said Wednesday that white-nose syndrome might have spread to Maryland.

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