The Southwest Florida Wildlife Center near Venice took in nearly 300 wild animals in the first several days after Hurricane Ian devastated southwest Florida.
CEO Pamela Defoe expects that number to rise, after the storm severely affected the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic On Sanibel Island Peace River Wildlife Center In Punta Gorda and Save our seabirds On Ken Thompson Island in Sarasota.
Karen Dorett, president of the Southwest Florida Wildlife Center, called the impact of Hurricane Ian “the worst crisis we’ve faced.”
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The center typically has an annual operating budget of $250,000 a year, most of which goes to the care and treatment of rescued animals that are eventually released into the wild.
DeFouw expects that budget to rise between $50,000 and $75,000 for next year to deal with the influx of new animals. This does not affect the cleaning of cyclones.
“I know that wild animals, perhaps, are not at the top of everyone’s list, yet they are endangered as they are,” added Dorit, who protects an iceberg of 16 baby flying squirrels, six gray chipmunks, six opossums and a raccoon in her home.
She was one of two people out of the storm at the center, which is located at 925 North Jackson Road north of Interstate 75 and west of Jacaranda Street, about six tenths of a mile west of the Mica River.
Immediately after the storm passed, the five-acre rescue facility was fairly dry, Defoe said last Thursday, noting that “most of the property was largely usable.”
However, by Tuesday afternoon, it was standing in ankle-deep water, as a result of the water draining south through the Mica River basin.
“The next day, it all showed up,” Defoe said. “That is all of it, Mecha River.”
She added, “There was a fish – it’s kind of comical, we’ll see groups of fish running across the property, we saw a neighbor swimming across – no crocodile, thank goodness.”
The river reached 12.7 feet in Myakka River State Park over the weekend, well above the 7-foot flood stage.
DeFouw attempted to reach both CROW on Sanibel Island and the Peace River Wildlife Center in Punta Gorda. Peace River told her that the facility at Ponce de Leon Park in Punta Gorda Isles had been badly damaged.
While the Peace River Wildlife Center is closed to the public indefinitely, according to the center’s website, Peace River Wildlife Hospital at 223 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. Punta Gorda is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to receive injured and orphaned animals.
After Peace River and southwest Florida, the closest center that takes birds, mammals, and reptiles is Bradenton Beach. Wildlife Inc. Education and rehabilitation.
Krista Carpenter, volunteer and carrier for Wildlife Inc. , said the center took in between 150 and 175 babies orphaned by Hurricane Ian — including skunks, opossums and squirrels, including one delivered all the way from North Harbor.
A network of wildlife rescues
While people who bring in injured animals are not turned away, volunteers associated with rescue operations usually remain in designated areas. Wildlife Inc will cover Manatee and northern Sarasota County, while the Wildlife Center usually tries to stay out of Lee County, with the exception of Boca Grande, which is accessible through Charlotte County.
People often reach out to DeFouw and her volunteers because she runs an hourly rescue line.
That’s one reason volunteer Mark Martell traveled to Tara Woods Mobile Home Park in North Fort Myers on Monday to retrieve a mention of the Sandhill Crane.
“We got a call on a very broken wing and he was sitting under a tree and it was at night,” Defoe said.
That call came on Sunday night but Martell didn’t make it until Monday. Martell said he had to make his way to Tara Woods by following some “non-GPS routes” and found the park devastated.
“The park residents made a path for us through the wreck so we could get in,” Martell said. “Fortunately, many residents were persistent enough to find us.”
A good percentage of animals rescued after the storm were injured by birds, including a pair of egrets, eagles, and a bald eagle, although the eagle did not survive its injuries.
With nonprofit rescue operations faltering in the South while recovering from Hurricane Ian, DeFouw anticipates an increase in rescue calls, “particularly dealing with threatened and endangered species like gopher turtles and burrowing owls.”
“We have to be there for conservation, so we can get a lot of these really sensitive species, and help get them back into the wild as well,” she added.
The vast number of rescues are from the four-legged species: raccoons, eastern cottontail rabbits, eastern gray squirrels, and southern flying squirrels brought in by people who know about the center.
The center usually cares for about 15 flying squirrels, but with many nests shaken from trees, the center looks after 40-50 squirrels.
The back porch/Florida room of the reception building has been converted into a place to care for animals with diseases that can easily spread.
Meanwhile, the caravan that was used as an office has been converted into a feeding station for baby animals, especially squirrels and rabbits.
Care and nutrition are key
At the feeding station, Jack George, 17, and Leah Brockoff, 16, were among a rotating group of volunteers for the task of using a dropper-shaped tube to feed baby rabbits twice a day.
Relative Chris Carroll, a retiree living in Grand Paradiso – nicknamed the Squirrel Whisperer – feeds a special squirrel formula for 3 weeks with a similar device.
Young squirrels should be fed every four hours.
Place the formula cup on a warmer to ensure it is at the right temperature.
“I put it on my wrist like they would on an infant, and if it’s too hot on my wrist, we take it off and let it cool a little, so we don’t burn their throat,” Carroll said.
After that, he fed a week-old baby – one of the youngest in the rescue center – without hair and not yet opening his eyes..
He moves on to another animal who was hairless and sick but found that he had died since his last feeding.
DeFouw said someone tried to lift this squirrel on his own and only brought him to the center when he was crashing.
“One thing I’ve told people is that if you find sick, injured or orphaned animals — especially right now — don’t try to treat them yourselves,” Defoe said. “Some people have been giving them like orange juice or coconut milk, and for something so small, it really messes up their system, so it’s really important to get the pros.”
While baby squirrels are adorable and fun to feed, they are also social animals and benefit from being around other squirrels. Their meals should also be divided by weight.
Young squirrels are eventually weaned off formula to a combination of formula and solid food – by the time they have eaten all the solid food, they are transported outside to the birdhouse.
“It excites them,” Defoe said.
“They should be able to run, jump, climb and get away from us, their fur should look good and they should be bright, attentive and responsive,” Defoe said. She added that after three to four weeks in a cage, “they don’t want to be around you, and then we have to use gloves to pick them up, put them in boxes, release them – which means we’ve done our job.”
While DeFouw is aware of the hardships faced by people affected by Hurricane Ian, she hopes that the wild animals will not be forgotten.
“Wildlife definitely needs the same thing because it’s been hit hard,” DeFouw said. “They were outside during that.
“I watched the storm pass and thought I was going to die and that the animals survived,” she added. “They survived until they got to our door, so it’s important that that door be there.”
A button that links to a Paypal nonprofit donation site can be found on the nonprofit’s web page, https://wildlifeswfl.org The book’s Facebook page.
Earle Kimmel primarily covers Southern Sarasota for the Herald Tribune and can be reached at [email protected] Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.
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