Tough Times for Bats at the National Zoo

The zoo disputes claim of 'mishandling' its bat project after the deaths of many in the colony

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    TK
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    An experiment to save endangered Virginia big-eared bats from a deadly fungus by creating a colony at the National Zoo's conservation center in Front Royal is drawing accusations of mishandling.

    Five months after the project began, most bats in the colony are dead. A consultant on the project now says the zoo mishandled the bats, leading to skin infections and injuries.

    The zoo disputes the allegations of mishandling, saying this species has never been held in captivity before, which led to problems.

    According to the zoo's Web site, Virginia big-eared bats usually live in limestone caves and old mines. Unlike other bat species, this species does not migrate; instead, the big-eared bats hibernate during the winter. Since the deadly fungus is spread from bat-to-bat contact, hibernating can threaten colonies.

    The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is accusing the zoo of "ignorance and incompetence" and asked for the bats to be removed.

    A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it appears the Smithsonian is trying to care for the remaining bats and moving them would cause more stress.

    The zoo's Web site indentifies the deadly fungus as "white-nose syndrome" and calls it a huge threat to bat populations in the Northeastern United States.