Washington, DC — The vast majority of a captive breeding population of endangered Virginia big-eared bats have died due to mishandling by the Smithsonian National Zoological Park’s Conservation and Research Center, and the rest are in poor health. Citing its failure to follow shelter, feeding and care protocols spelled out by bat experts, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is calling for revocation of the Center’s federal research permit and immediate relocation of the few surviving bats to a qualified sanctuary before they also expire.
In October 2009, the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) received a grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to establish a captive colony of Virginia big-eared bats at its Front Royal (VA) facility. The grant program was set up in response to the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fatal disease that is threatening several eastern bat species with extinction.
There are only 15,000 Virginia big-eared bats remaining in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina and they have never been kept or bred in captivity before. In November, 2009, CRC collected 40 of the bats from West Virginia caves and retained a highly trained insectivorous bat expert to guide the project. But CRC chose to ignore the expert’s key recommendations, resulting in needless mortality.
Today, only 11 of the 40 bats survive and the condition of these survivors is deteriorating. Problems encountered at the Center include:
- Two bats that died from being left too long inside an incubator at very high temperatures;
- Bats suffering from severe stress due to being over-handled, such as six people at a time surrounding bats during feeding; and
- Open sores on bats from improper feeding and unsuitable cage construction.
In her December 2009 final report, Missy Singleton, the expert consultant, catalogued deficiencies ranging from improper feeding to dehydration. In one passage, she wrote:
“…poor subcutaneous injection techniques caused the bats to cry out on several occasions. On two occasions the needles entered the gloves of the caretaker holding the bat during injection, which constitutes a health risk to employees as well as to bats.”
At the time Singleton left, six bats had died within three weeks. The ultrahigh mortality at CRC compares unfavorably with survival rates of 80 percent or better for bats recovered from hibernation, as the CRC bats were. As Kate Rugroden, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and certified bat specialist, explained “Sanctuaries have established proven models for the captive care of insectivorous bats and have been successfully maintaining colonies for decades, with multiple generations of offspring produced. The real tragedy of this case is that programs like this could be successful if proven methods were followed instead of institutions trying to reinvent the wheel.”
To dispel mounting concern, on Saturday March 6, the CRC posted a web story admitting problems but claiming it was “learning [lessons that] will help save these, and other, insectivorous bats in the future.”
“Bat specialists are simply appalled at what has occurred at the Conservation and Research Center,” said PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson who filed the complaint with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in order to prevent the CRC from obtaining any more bats. “In this case, it appears that institutional egos at the Smithsonian have eclipsed the purpose of the project, which is to save this extraordinary endangered species from extinction.”