“We deal with 50 to 80 bats per year, but we are still running with a skeleton crew of volunteers.” — Leslie Sturges
In American culture, bats have become symbolic of the scary. These nocturnal animals, however, are respected — revered, even — in many cultures.
When you realize that bats pollinate a number of plants, or that they eat those pesky mosquitos that infect humans with a number of diseases, you can see why some populations hold bats in such high esteem. The Save Lucy Campaign is a local organization of bat advocates and admirers.
The non-profit organization sets out to rescue and rehabilitate as many bats possible from the many environmental dangers that threaten them throughout the world. The local group focuses on raising awareness of and doing everything they can to combat white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease that over the last few years has killed millions of North American bats and is caused by fungus found in caves.
“Something horrible happened around 10 years ago to bats in this country who hibernate in caves,” said Deborah Hammer, a member of The Save Lucy Campaign. “That horrible thing was white-nose syndrome. The bat population was hit hard, especially little brown bats. They were so common, ubiquitous even. Now it’s rare to find one, even for research purposes.”
The disappearance of a massive portion of these local little brown bats, called lucys (short for the scientific name, myotis lucifugus), inspired The Save Lucy Campaign’s name and focused quest.
“We officially launched in January 2011,” founder Leslie Sturges said. “I had been doing education programs through other organizations — under the aegis of Bat World Sanctuary — and I was involved with the Northeast Bat Regional Working Group. I knew how bad WNS was, and I knew that no one at my programs had heard of it, so something had to change. Our mission is to raise awareness of white-nose syndrome and bats in general and to allow youth a platform to voice their thoughts about the future of bats. Now we’re working harder to draw the connection between bats and people, bats and agriculture, and bats and forest health.”
Hammer, a long-time bat aficionado and also an autism specialist for Arlington County Public Schools, said she was dumbfounded and beyond disappointed when she learned about WNS.
“When I first heard about it, I was devastated,” Hammer said. “Bats already have so much going against them. It’s still even really common for people to kill a bat if it’s caught in their houses instead of letting it out. Then, white-nose syndrome became the biggest threat to bats here in Northern Virginia. It’s a fungal infection tracked into bat caves by soil in boots, which these days have deep crevices where the fungus can live. While there are many, many other threats to bats worldwide – like poaching, habitat destruction, pollution, and more – WNS is really horrible.”
This non-native fungus has killed millions of bats since it was first identified in 2006.
“It causes them to burn up fat reserves as the body tries to fight a fungal infection,” Sturges said. “As the fungus invades the bare skin areas of the muzzle, ears, and wing membranes, it damages the skin. The wing membranes are crucial to maintaining body water balance during hibernation, and the disruption and damage causes dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. We've seen massive scarring back when we saw survivors at a local colony, and the ones who survive until spring can still have such damaged wings that they can't fly.”
“It can kill an entire colony really quickly,” Hammer said. “The fungus covers them in their sleep, and then they fly out of their caves and freeze to death. It’s rare for them to live long enough to get into care.”
The many impacts of WNS have been catastrophic to the ecosystem.
“WNS has killed 90 percent of cave dependent bats in Pennsylvania,” Hammer said. “It’s been devastating for farmers who rely on bats for pest control.”
Unfortunately, experts like Sturges don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel soon enough.
“In my opinion, these hibernators are in deep, deep trouble,” she said. “We will not ‘cure’ the fungus that causes WNS because fungi are incredibly persistent and every year, surviving bats get re-exposed. We can hope they develop resistance against the fungus. Given that bats live with the fungus in Europe and Asia, it seems the ability to develop resistance is possible. However, the habitat available to those potential resistors [in our area] is not exactly awesome. We need to do what we can to help those survivors reproduce so resistance can be expressed in the population.”
According to Sturges, there are eight species of bats that hibernate in caves. This equates to about half the bats in Virginia.
The Save Lucy Campaign team has educated thousands of people through its outreach efforts, which includes workshops in a number of different locations.
“Our boots-on-the-ground efforts reach about 5,000 people a year, and our audiences range from elementary school students to adult interest groups,” Sturges said. “We focus mostly on Backyard Bats, that is, species native to the mid-Atlantic. We feel strongly that not enough attention is paid to local wildlife species unless it’s negative press stories. We try to counteract that. Of course, we also touch on bats on a global basis, but we really want to bring nature and conservation home. Personally, I want kids to come up with conservation actions on their own, but we only have an hour with them during a program, so I do point them to conservation actions that they can take and that have a big impact, like invasive plant removal and turning out excess lights at night.”
Sturges encourages people to use their own talents and hobbies to make a difference in the lives of these misunderstood mammals.
“We produce animated short films and art to add to our education efforts, and we also encourage kids to use non-conventional methods to share how they feel, like poetry, song writing, and art,” Sturges said. “I had a student very excited about writing a ‘Fight the Fungus’ song.”
The Save Lucy Campaign, funded mostly by donations, also does what it can to be hands-on with its rescue efforts.
“We deal with 50 to 80 bats per year,” she said, “but we are still running with a skeleton crew of volunteers.”
This local guild of bat advocates is made up of more than 10 people with a passion for bats.
“I’ve loved bats since I was a kid,” Hammer said. “I used to go to the library and check out books about them. I thought that they were amazing. Other people made disparaging comments about them, but I was fascinated. When I was about 15, I went to summer camp, and these teenage boys caught a bat and were torturing it inside a building, and I rescued him and yelled at them. That was the first time I saw one close up, and it was so cute. The experience made me love bats even more.”
As a teacher, Hammer has used bats to teach a variety of lessons. If it weren’t for her, hundreds of students wouldn’t know that there are about 1,300 species of bats, or that bats consume millions of mosquitos every year. Since getting involved with The Lucy Campaign about five years ago, she gets to broadcast these facts and lessons on a much grander scale.
“Getting involved with The Save Lucy Campaign, it’s a rare opportunity to work closely with other bat enthusiasts,” Hammer said. “I’ve gotten to educate so many people, and lead people on bat walks locally. I’ve gotten to discuss the really interesting phenomena that are happening with different bat species right now.”
She said there are so many misnomers about bats, and she believes that it’s because creatures of the night often get a falsely bad reputation.
“Contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind,” she said. “That’s a myth. They fly with their hands and can actually see even better than us. They also have echolocation capabilities so they can sense something as delicate as a spider web. They may fly near humans, but, it’s only to get to insects. We are taught to be scared of things we don’t know, and, it is pretty hard for people to wrap their heads around the concept of a mammal that flies. Most bats are not vampire bats, though, and, even those that are bring great advantages to humankind. I wish everyone could know more about bats, and why it’s such a tragedy that so many are vanishing.”
For more information, visit www.savelucythebat.org.