Controversy Erupts Over Captive Endangered Bat Colony
A bitter controversy is brewing over a captive colony of endangered Virginia big-eared bats, founded in November as a hedge against disease driving the species to extinction in the wild.
Of 40 bats put in the colony, only 10 have survived. According to environmental activists and a consultant to the project, their demise wasn’t just an unfortunate consequence of the animals’ sensitivity, but a result of avoidable human negligence.
If the colony’s keepers had not “ignored the advice of experts, these bats would still be alive today,” said Christine Erickson, a staff attorney Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group.
On March 9, PEER filed a complaint (.pdf) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the project’s overseers. The complaint was based on a critique of the bats’ care (.pdf) at the Smithsonian National Zoo written by Missy Singleton, a bat care consultant retained by the Zoo during the colony’s first few weeks.
USFWS officials decided to start the colony after white nose syndrome, a highly virulent disease that threatens many cave-dwelling eastern bat species with extinction, was found in one of the few caves where Virginia big-eared bats live.
The responsibility for keeping the bats was given to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Federal and zoo officials described the colony as an ark, a hedge against the suddenly realistic possibility of the species’ demise.
According to PEER and Singleton, the zoo disregarded the advice of experts in setting up the colony. Among the allegations are improper feeding, exposure to fluctuating temperatures and careless handling, leading to the fatal infections that have killed most of the bats. In a letter to the USFWS, Singleton described “a repeated and ongoing disregard for the welfare of the bats.”
“Even under the most challenging conditions, no more than a 20 percent death rate is considered acceptable for insectivorous bats,” wrote Singleton.
In a public statement, the National Zoo said (.pdf) that many of Singleton’s claims, “which form the bulk of the complaint, are unsubstantiated and untrue.”
“The care plan was based on existing bat protocols, but they had to very quickly adapt and change some of those protocols,” said Pamela Baker Masson, a communications officer at the National Zoo. “Nobody has ever worked with this subspecies of bat.”
Baker Masson said that Singleton was only present during the first few weeks of the colony’s founding, and was not familiar with the full story. Some of her advice was followed but proved ineffective, said Baker Masson.
“She said the bats needed to be fed juicier mealworms, but we found that when the bats ate them, liquid dripped off their chins, matted their fur, and created skin ulcers that led to infections. So we had to reverse that,” said Baker Masson.
According to Barbara Douglas, a USFWS biologist who oversaw the project, the department is now reviewing the colony’s care. Some of the allegations are untrue, “and some I don’t have enough information on yet. Obviously, we take any of those allegations very seriously,” she said.
As to charges that expert advice was ignored, Douglas said that “before any bats were brought into captivity, they consulted with a number of experts.” The full plan is available (.pdf) from the USFWS.
The USFWS has not decided what will be done with the remaining captive bats, which PEER wants transferred to professional bat rehabilitators. According to Jeremy Douglas, the USFWS’s white nose syndrome coordinator, captive colonies remain an option for bat species threatened by the disease.
Peter Youngbaer, the White Nose Syndrome liaison for the National Speleological Society, said he only recently became aware of PEER’s allegations, but does consider them troubling. The goal of raising Virginia big eared bats in captivity, however, he considers noble.
With just a few thousand bats left, “and a fatal, highly infectious disease knocking at the door, I can’t fault the idea as illegitimate. The particulars of the project, however, are another story,” said Youngbaer.