In Topton, a rescue operation aims to save bats

When Stephanie Stronsick moved earlier this year, she faced a renovation challenge unlike any other.

Founder and sole operator of Pennsylvania Bat Rescue, she had to create an escape-proof room for the 50 winged creatures wintering over with her.

Bats can squeeze through an opening a quarter-inch small, just one of the many distinct characteristics that make them both incredibly valuable to the ecosystem and increasingly threatened.

Stronsick is a longtime bat enthusiast whose appreciation for the winged creatures turned into a calling about four years ago, when she first founded the rescue near Topton.

She plucks bats from precarious situations - barn floors, parking garages, downed trees - and in many cases, nurses them back to health. She is devoted to each bat she cares for, but she's equally committed to teaching others how important the 45 species native to Pennsylvania are for local agriculture, pest management efforts and human recreation.

"We've lost 99 percent of our historic bat population in some areas of Pennsylvania," said Stronsick, also a large-animal zookeeper at the Lehigh Valley Zoo. "If they can make it back and thrive again, it's going to take hundreds of years."

Bats are threatened with changes to their habitat, but the most devastating impact came from the rapid spread of white-nose syndrome. Cavers likely introduced the spreading fungus to caves where many bats roosted in the late 2000s, waking the flying mammals mid-hibernation and leading to mass starvation.

To those who grew up watching Dracula movies and fearing rabies, the destruction of entire bat roosts might not sound so terrible. But bats are actually great friends to humans, Stronsick said.

In the age of the West Nile and Zika viruses, a mature, nursing female bat can consume up to 1,000 mosquito-size insects in an hour. And each species of bat has its own insect preference, meaning they can also be a boon to farmers trying to ward off beetles or native stink bugs.

"Bats are providing this valuable role," said Kate Harms, a Rodale Institute scientist and manager for the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, an animal welfare group. "The most important thing we can do - until our bats recover or build up immunity to white nose - is to support their habitat."

That includes allowing bats to roost in unused attics or on rooflines and leaving dead trees standing whenever possible. Farmers can make an impact by providing bat boxes near orchards, grain and vegetable crops. Rodale will be working with farmers in Berks and three other counties to track whether certain boxes work better.

Even saving a lone bat can make a difference to the slow-growing population, which is why the Ian Somerhalder foundation has provided two grants to support Stronsick's rescue efforts.

Much of her work - Stronsick is the only volunteer - follows a report of a sick or injured bat. She'll drive about an hour from her home to rescue one, or point do-gooders to other, closer organizations that can handle bats.

For bats, a quick response is best. The longer they are around humans, Stronsick said, the more likely they are to be mishandled, bite or become stressed and dehydrated.

Though bats don't get the same kind of love as other furry mammals, the people who contact the rescue typically sympathize with them.

Stronsick remembers one New Year's Eve call from a runner who'd found a bat facedown in a puddle. Assuming the bat was dead, she rolled it over and moved it aside gently with a stick, only to see the tiniest bit of movement in reaction.

Puddles was revived then brought back to health and released, much to the delight of her original rescuer and her caregiver.

She's rescued pups in the summer, when their overheated moms might try to nudge them off their backs and onto a ledge or a tree limb, dropping them instead.

"It's not easy to rehab pups," Stonsick said. "It's very time consuming because they get fed every three hours. You become their mother."

Stronsick typically feeds them a milk supplemented with special nutrients, but occasionally, a female bat already in her care will take over nursing duties. That's similar to life in the wild, where some species create maternity roosts and baby sit each other's young so everyone can feed.

Many bats, Stronsick said, thrive as communal dwellers and show an emotional reaction to loss.

This winter, she was fortunate enough to rescue a Northern long-eared bat. Considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the bat is so rare that Stronsick has only seen two in four years of rescuing up 100 bats a year.

Among the toughest cases are bats attacked by cats. Stopping the rapid spread of bacteria transmitted through a cat's bite can be impossible even with medication.

Stronsick is self-trained and spent years working with wildlife creatures in California and up and along the East Coast. She gravitated toward bats after working with songbirds and raptors. She has worked alongside experts at the San Diego's Natural History Museum and field biologists with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Her commitment doesn't end with sleepless nights. Because some bats do carry rabies, Stronsick underwent vaccination in a series of three, pre-exposure shots. She's also spent much of her own money - about $7,000 in one year alone - to pay for travel, supplies and veterinary equipment.

The investment is worth it if she can return one bat to the wild, knowing that it might live up to 30 years and help create the next generation of bats.

Her Northern long-eared, getting used to hand-fed mealworms after successful treatment for an upper respiratory infection, will likely be released back to the wild in April along with more than 40 of her roommates.


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BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats: In Topton, a rescue operation aims to save bats
In Topton, a rescue operation aims to save bats
In Topton a rescue operation aims to save bats
BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats
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