Low brush edged by wide berths of trees make the park a perfect home for a big bird of prey, especially on a windy autumn day like this. But the red-tailed hawk Ed Straight and son Devon of Wildlife, Inc. Education and Rehabilitation are preparing to release has yet to show any inkling of gratitude for his new home or his saviors. His talons clutching Devon’s gloved wrist, the hawk is too busy casting spiteful glares to even notice where he is. Devon waits. The hawk soon starts looking forward, out into the great expanse before him. He shrugs his wings, shifts his weight from side to side. 

Ed and his wife, Gail, have run Wildlife Inc. for more than 30 years, and in that time Ed has supervised hundreds and hundreds of releases. But this moment still makes him nervous, waiting with bated breath to see whether the hawk will take flight. With a flick of his wrist, Devon gives the hawk the final push he needs. The hawk takes flight, gliding off over a pond to rest on a low perch. Then, in the space of a few heartbeats, he’s off again, too far back into the brush and the bright midday sun to see.

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Ed breathes a sigh of relief. It’s a successful release, but the hawk was just one of many animals injured or displaced by Hurricane Irma, including an unseasonably large influx of orphaned mammals. Back at the Straight residence, Gail tends to these storm orphans—raccoons, possums, skunks and dozens of squirrels. Many are still weeks or even months away from being able to survive in the wild. The tiniest of the lot are indoors, where a red-handed tamarin keeps a watchful eye on them. The kitten-sized primate was surrendered to the center, where he seems to have found his calling comforting infant animals, though, Gail notes, “he hasn’t quite figured out how to feed them.” Outside, slightly older youngsters bounce about their enclosures, chittering eagerly at passersby. Farther from the house are the oldest juveniles, the farthest of the lot a troupe of raccoons who skulk about their pen like so many grounded teenagers. Other, larger orphans—like fawns—have already been moved offsite to a “soft release” area where they can gain strength and experience in a more natural environment. Distancing the orphans as they regain their strength is important. Ideally, by the time they are ready for release, all the Straight’s rescue animals should be as ready as that hawk to give humans a wide berth. Humans, after all, present a far greater threat to wildlife than hurricanes.

The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) estimates that over 75% of the animals cared for by wildlife rehabilitators like Wildlife Inc. are “affected in some manner by human activities;” some studies have that number as high as 85%-95%. The ways in which people cause harm to wildlife, directly or indirectly, are as manifold as they are horrifying.  

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Kevin Barton, co-founder and head of Wildlife Center of Venice (WCV), describes a whole host of scenarios he’s encountered over 20+ years, including “direct injuries” like those caused by fishing line, gunshots, power lines, cars and boat propellers. “We had an eagle hit by a plane one time,” he says, but indirect causes play a role as well. “Some of it is deforestation. Sometimes they’re crossing roads because they just lost their habitat. Then they get hit by a car. So, it’s a double whammy.”

At Save Our Seabirds (SOS), CEO David Pilston keeps a more physical reminder, a tall jar filled to the brim with fish hooks, bits of plastic bags and other detritus all taken from the bodies of birds in a three-month period. He calls it “The Jar of Death.”

As a species, humans clearly do a lot of damage. But at rehabilitation centers like Wildlife Inc., WCV and SOS, people like the Straights, Barton and Pilston are working to help repair some of that damage, one animal at a time, including birds, reptiles and mammals. Theirs is a seemingly thankless labor, one that begins with a lot of paperwork. Wildlife rehabilitators need to obtain federal and state licensure, along with special licenses for handling certain species. In Florida, they do not receive any public funding, despite working closely with animal services, Fish and Wildife, and related government agencies. The work is physically taxing, messy and there’s a seemingly endless number of animals in need of care. SOS, WCV and Wildlife Inc. each care for between 3-5,000 animals per year, a staggering number. And those aren’t just local animals. Because wildlife rehabilitators share limited resources, and because many local rehabilitators have established themselves as leaders in caring for certain species, they may take in animals from other parts of Florida or even other states. Gail, for example, has raised otter pups from as far north as Tennessee; SOS recently took in two white pelicans stranded in the Midwest (In Pilston’s words: “Every winter we get hundreds of them down here on the commute and most of them come under their own power. These ones came by commercial aircraft.”)

To meet that need and help as many animals as possible, one immediate challenge is space. That need is what has recently driven WCV to expand its operations. The day before Hurricane Irma hit, Barton signed the deed on a property just across the road from the center’s former headquarters, which were rapidly being filled to capacity. It’s a stone’s throw away, but a huge move forward for the organization, which, though still young, has grown rapidly over the past several years, thanks to a grassroots strategy that extends an open invitation to the public to join WCV’s volunteer rescue network.

The new property, located on a rural road just off Myakka, might look like a typical small farm to an outsider. But it comes alive when Barton describes it, from the “battle-tested” kennel where he hunkered down during Irma with the big birds of prey to the site where he dreams of installing a large flight cage for rehabilitation raptors. 

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What really made him fall in love with the property, however, was a different kind of space. Much of the land is an undeveloped jungle—and that’s just the way Barton hopes to keep it. Because wild animals need space, too, and the property, which borders park land, is part of one of Florida’s major wildlife corridors. Preserving habitat, especially in wildlife corridors, is one way to help animals avoid the perils of human activity. Think prevention as medicine. Another strategy is to provide educational resources to help locals and visitors become better stewards of the environment. 

While the center has an extraordinary avian hospital wing and rehabilitation center, much of the work SOS does focuses on education. The crown jewel of that educational programming is the Wild Bird Learning Center, a top-ranked ecotourism destination, and home to the SOS mascot—Sweetpea the pelican.

Sweetpea, like all the residents on display in the Wild Bird Education Center, is not able to survive in the wild because of injury or, in her case, birth defects. It’s an exclusive club, and there are more than a few outsiders who seem to want in, tempted by the prospect of a free lunch. One young heron in particular keeps hanging around the exhibit area, eyeing his captive counterparts enviously. When staff approach to encourage him to leave, he hops up and clings to the wire like a kid desperate to stay at the playground.

“It can be tough,” Pilston says, not to interfere in cases like this. All the more so, one imagines, for someone with as much enthusiasm for birds as him. But the goal is to provide balance—to help equal out the damage caused by humans, not to encourage dependence on people.  In keeping with that mission, the Wild Bird Learning Center provides visitors with a number of tools to better understand what a balanced ecosystem should look like. The latest of these supplemental materials is the newly launched SOS app. Used in conjunction with the signs around the Wild Bird Learning Center, the app provides an interactive experience for visitors, who can use it to access additional information on each species, including recreations of each species in flight and in their natural habitats. Pilston hopes that innovations like the app will help inspire the next generation of wildlife conservationists.

“Having that experience, that connection with something wild, can be life-changing,” Pilston says. “It can change how you vote, what you do, the causes you fight for—it can really just change everything.”

Working with the community is an important step towards promoting a better future, and community involvement is integral to the success of rehabilitators. Because these centers don’t receive public funding, they rely heavily on private donations and the efforts of volunteers to stay solvent and operational. 

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Rehabilitators also benefit from the aid of non-human helpers. Though invasive sepecies generally aren’t welcome at SOS (they even removed all the non-native flora from the exhibit area), the center harbors a member of the species Pilston jokes are “public enemy number one”—Muskovy ducks. Resident female Mama Muskovy, however, has earned herself a permanent position as a foster mom, raising orphans of other ducks as her own each chick season. Wildlife Inc., of course, has the tamarin. And an otter Barton raised and released ended up adopting a younger pup he was in the process of reintroducing to the river near his home. 

Another important resource local rehabilitators have is one another. Each have some level of specialization—SOS exclusively takes birds; WCV takes birds but large quantities of mammals; Wildlife Inc. takes just about everything—and work together to ensure that, when a call comes in, an animal has someplace to go. Barton’s had help in establishing WCV from Gail of Wildlife Inc., who sent incubators and other materials to help the newer center get started. SOS itself was reborn from the ashes of the Pelican Man, a much-beloved but financially troubled institution that SOS still pays tribute to with a monument at the start of the Wild Bird Learning Center.

“From day one, I felt like this is a co-operative. We’re all in this together,” Pilston says, describing the relationship between local rehabilitators, add that, at the end of the day, “It’s all about the wildlife.”