Bat rehabilitator saves ‘underdog’ amid fear, disease

Her epiphany came in a dark, abandoned building in nowhere Texas.

She knew, s she sat alone that night, that she would become “Batwoman.”

It’s been 30 years of work now for Rosemarie Curcio, one of only a handful of licensed, bat rehabilitators in the state and possibly the only one in Central Pa.

She is the caretaker of one of the most misunderstood and even feared animals. Long portrayed as villainous in movies and folklore, bats have truly never escaped their unfortunate reputation.

To make matters far worse, they’ve been decimated by disease and pesticides in recent years.

Now, they are being studied for links to COVID-19 — how the virus may have evolved in them, their susceptibility to it and if they can pass it directly to humans.

Through it all, Curcio, 66, has been one of their protectors. Three decades ago she was a special education teacher living l in Queens, New York who felt compelled, simply enough, to help wildlife of some kind.

“I was always for the underdog,” she said recently. “Everyone else would take care of other animals, but it was like, ‘Who’s taking care of the bats?'”

So she signed up for a week-long instruction course at the Bat World Sanctuary, formerly in Mineral Wells, Texas. There, she made nightly ventures into a ramshackle building that was a roosting home to scores of bats.

She walked up “creepy, creaky stairs” to get to the rooms with bats hanging everywhere. She climbed a ladder to scoop up the youngest, one by one, to feed them.

She was alone, in the dark.

“It was just quiet and peaceful and I heard the bats. I just felt like I was one with them. I can’t really put it into words, it was just a feeling I had inside.

“It was like this is where I really do belong, I do belong helping these guys … It was a revelation.”

Her longtime friend in New York put it this way: “Do you realize that your dream vacation is my worst nightmare?”

The big brown bat fit neatly in the palm of her hand.

Curcio, gloved and gowned, picked up one of her rehab males on a recent afternoon to be examined and weighed. She rubbed her hand gently across his face and head. She looked over his tiny and yet infamous teeth. She spread out one of his wings.

The bat’s nickname doesn’t do it justice. A fully grown big brown, the most common species in Pennsylvania, usually weighs no more than an ounce.

She releases her rehabbed bats twice a year — wintered-over adults in the spring and new pups by the end of September. Always, she frees them near an established bat colony, often on farms or in woodlands.

She cares for up to 15 or 20 bats at any one time in tents and netted cages in her basement in Marietta, Lancaster County. A handful are permanent residents, adults that could never care for themselves in the wild. The others are a constantly rotating brood of youngsters found abandoned or injured.

The pups mature quickly on a diet of meal worms sprinkled with powdered supplements. They gradually learn to crawl and fly around the tents, clinging to the netting and huddling during the day in rolled-up Rubbermaid shelf-liners.

The first few weeks of the newborns’ life are the toughest for all. Curcio said she rarely sleeps more than a couple of hours each night in order to feed them on demand.

She and others like her are fascinated by the world’s only flying mammal.

Most species devour insects, with a single bat able to consume up to 1,200 mosquitoes per hour. They also target bugs that damage corn, soy and potato crops, saving Pennsylvania farmers an estimated $74 per acre per year, according to state game commission biologist Greg Turner.

While bats have decent vision, they find their way and locate prey mainly through echolocation — responding to their own high-frequency sound waves bouncing off nearby objects.

They are a “keystone species,” meaning they are a gatekeeper to environmental balance, said Steph Stronsick, executive director of the Pennsylvania Bat Rescue in Mertztown, Berks County.

That’s why their recent troubles are so alarming. Up to six million bats in Pennsylvania alone have perished over the past decade from a fungus called white-nose syndrome, Turner said. Those most susceptible are the species that hibernate in caves.

Bats have long been connected to viruses. The saving grace for these fastidious self-cleaners is a highly-efficient immune system that allows them to live remarkably long lives, 25 years or more in the wild.

They may have even found a way to co-exist with the new coronavirus. The study of “bat immunology” could provide scientists with ways to battle COVID-19 in humans. Studies have revealed a close relationships between the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses in Chinese horseshoe bats.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania State Game Commission and the University of Pennsylvania are testing bats for the virus, mostly with concerns about the health of already stressed colonies.

Soon after the pandemic hit, Curcio was concerned that “people were going to freak out and start wanting to kill bats because, ‘Oh, my god, they could bring the virus all over.’ That was my biggest fear. We’re trying to educate people on the importance of bats and now we’re going to be set back by people wanting to kill them by fear.”

While they are a main transmitter of rabies to humans, less than 1/10 of 1 percent of wild bats have the disease. (Animal and health officials still stress handling bats only with gloved hands).

“They’re not the glamour species. When the whales were in danger or the wolves, people would still look at them and say, ‘Oh, they’re beautiful. A wolf is beautiful. Bats,” Curcio said, “most people look at them and don’t see them as pretty.”

“Anything that comes out at night is misunderstood,” said Stronsick of the Pa. Bat Rescue.

Always, this is a critical season for bats.

Only now, in late summer, are pups old enough to care for themselves — allowing wildlife control workers to legally rid unwanted bats from homes. They are able to seal buildings in ways to let unwanted bats escape but not return.

And this is when rehabilitators like Curcio, who is affiliated with the Raven Ridge Wildlife Center, release their youngest bats, as long as they are proven flyers. That gives them time to acclimate to a colony before the weather truly turns.

She’s come a long way since sneaking her first bats into her upstairs apartment in New York City.

She talked of rehabbing a brilliant hoary bat last year, the largest species in Pennsylvania (5 to 6 inches long). Its brown fur is tinged in white, giving it a silver sheen.

According to Rosemarie Curcio, this hoary bat was found in York on a window screen, and had a urinary tract infection. After making a full recovery, this bat was released around Indian Steps Museum in Lower Chanceford Township on June 30, 2019. “He flew away beautifully,” she said.

She released him last summer near the Indian Steps Museum by the Susquehanna River, an area protected by steep hills and covered in forest.

She waited, watching overhead for the fast flutter of bats in the falling twilight.

The time was right.

“He flew away beautifully,” she said, a bit wistful.

She watched as he disappeared into the trees.



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