Wildlife center, animal rescue facility advances on $2.5M expansion
The Sarasota County project is underway while also raising funds to finish it.
| 5:00 a.m. November 17, 2023
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The Venice-based Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida has embarked on a four-phase, $2.5 million expansion that will allow the nonprofit facility to develop a plethora of species-specific habitats and significantly improve its ability to rescue and rehabilitate injured animals.
Phase one, which includes several new aviaries, including one for raptors, is already under way.
Phase two consists of a new deer run, aviaries for shore and marsh birds and other waterfowl, an office building and a restricted movement area for animals who must wear slings and other mobility-reducing medical devices as they recover from injuries. Phase three includes songbird aviaries, squirrel enclosures, an otter habitat and enclosures for large mammals such as foxes, bobcats and coyotes, while the fourth and final phase will include an upgraded triage center for critical emergency care and a comprehensive surgical suite that will reduce the center’s reliance on external veterinary clinics.
The project kicked off in 2022 and was originally estimated to take about two and a half years to complete. But Hurricane Ian was a setback, says Executive Director Pamela Defouw.
“We’re already about a year into it,” she says. “A lot of the bird structures should be done within the next eight months. And then we have reptile and mammal [habitats]. We have a lot of temporary enclosures up so we're able to keep treating and taking care of the patients. I'm hoping with some push that we can stay very close to the original timeline.”
Dueouw says one of the coolest aspects of the Wildlife Center’s expansion is the number of new spaces designed with animals’ natural habitats in mind. The pelican aviary, for example, will feature a much larger pool, measuring 10 feet by 20 feet.
“To be able to give these animals everything they need to recover in a somewhat natural setting is exciting,” Defouw says. “Because each enclosure is done differently, you’re learning so much more about these animals — we’re researching to see what their needs are and how to meet those needs.”
The more realistic habitats, she adds, will enhance the center’s capacity for educating the high school students, college students and volunteers who assist at the facility, which is not open to the public but conducts educational outreach programs in the community. Defouw says one of the center’s objectives is to inspire the “biologists and veterinarians of tomorrow.”
The expansion is also being developed in a way that will retain the site’s natural beauty as much as possible, adding to the center’s bona fides as a haven for wildlife. That jibes with the center’s primary goal: to release its patients back into the wild with their fear of humans intact.
“We’ve utilized as much space on this property as we can for rehabilitation without damaging the current landscape,” Defouw says. “Tearing down trees and is something that we're not doing. We try to keep it as natural for our patients as possible.”
Hurricane Ian, of course, was a big challenge, derailing the Wildlife Center’s expansion project just as it was getting started.
“The structures stood up fairly well to Hurricane Ian,” Defouw says. “Our biggest hurdle was because we're so close to the Myakka River — less than 24 hours after Ian, the entire center became underwater because the river was going through the property.”
Ian’s rampage through Southwest Florida, however, did not deter Defouw and her team.
Assisted by volunteers and other “good Samaritans,” she says, the Wildlife Center remained operational and was able to treat dozens of animals, including baby squirrels, birds and rabbits, that could not find shelter from the storm and sustained injuries.
“We had some awesome staff and volunteers,” Defouw says. “We set up our office as our triage room because our driveway was underwater. We had people, some who had never even been to the center, stopping by and saying, ‘Hey, what do you need?’ We had people around the clock feeding the baby animals inside our buildings. So, it was a hurdle but it was also a good example of the community coming together and showed the good in humanity.”
With so many other pressing needs in the community because of Hurricane Ian, fundraising has also been an uphill climb for the Wildlife Center, which relies on philanthropy and grants to remain operational. According to Defouw, the facility is still between $400,000 and $500,000 short of its $2.5 million goal for the expansion project. The organization had $1.33 million in assets in its most recent fiscal year, according to public tax filings.
“People sometimes don't understand the importance of wildlife centers in general, not just ours,” she says. “But if there's an environmental issue going on, like red tide, agencies will reach out to organizations like ours first because we see the effects in our patients first. There's a lot to be learned from our patients, and how each species plays an important role in the environment. Whether you're an animal lover or not, the wildlife that's out there needs to be out there. It needs to exist for human health, as well.”