In a solitary cage surrounded by trees, a bobcat lies quietly on her wooden perch. She scans the woods with wide,watchful eyes, looking ready to pounce.This graceful feline, known by her caretakers as Bobbi, was paralyzed from the neck down when she arrived at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc. (C.R.O.W.) after being hit by a car. Seven months later, after extensive physical therapy, she is able to run and climb as if nothing had ever happened. Bobbi is just one of more than 3,100 animals brought to C.R.O.W. last year. Soon she will be fully recovered and released back into the wild. Restored health is the only fee asked of the patients by
the dedicated staff and volunteers who run this busy wildlife hospital.
Nestled into a lush, marshy stretch of land on Sanibel Island, off Florida's Gulf Coast, C.R.O.W. has the feel of a peaceful retreat: Like a tree house in this tropical setting, an airy three-story wooden building shelters the hospital and offices. Outside, cages of wood and wire mingle with lush foliage, serving as transitional spaces for animals that will eventually return to their native habitats. It is not unusual to encounter large, leggy wood storks strolling around the property in the dappled sunlight, apparently attracted to the chatter of the caged residents. These storks don't live here; they just like to stop by. Guests from the wild are welcome at any time, but human visitors are strictly
monitored; this is not a zoo.
On any given day at C.R.O.W., volunteers field calls about injured animals while the staff veterinarian, her assistants, and an intern give patients daily checkups, take X-rays, and perform emergency surgery. New patients arrive at all hours, and people show up once each day for the educational tour. Because there are only five full-time paid staff members at C.R.O.W., a great deal of work is done by volunteers and student externs. "We rely on private donations and memberships to survive," says Anita Pinder, C.R.O.W. operations manager. "So we count on our volunteers to give tours, build cages, feed animals -- whatever needs to be done."
Since its establishment in 1968, C.R.O.W. has grown into an indispensable refuge for southern Florida's wildlife.The patients here are federally protected migratory birds and indigenous wildlife of all kinds, including shore birds, river otters, even tiny baby armadillos. About 90 percent of new patients are injured, ill, or orphaned due to human interference. "They are hit by cars and boats, they become tangled in fishing lines and lose limbs from lack of circulation, they swallow fishhooks. Some are even attacked by dogs and cats," says longtime volunteer and board member Ann Arnoff. The number of such incidents increases every year.
Many patients brought to C.R.O.W. are saved, but, sadly, putting animals down is also a necessity. It is mandated by federal law in some cases. "A wild animal kept in a cage lives a substandard life," says P.J. Deitschel, the staff veterinarian. "When an animal can't function normally in his natural habitat,euthanasia is often the best gift we have to offer." A few permanently disabled animals live at C.R.O.W.; they serve as "ambassadors" for other members of their species, easing the stress of injury and exile by their familiar presence.
Human contact with the animals is kept to a minimum since nothing is more dangerous for an animal -- especially a baby animal -- than getting used to people and becoming tame. "Animals that don't know they are wild can't be released; they won't have the social skills necessary to survive," says Deitschel.The wildlife rehabilitators at C.R.O.W. set up transitional environments for the animals on a species-by-species basis, assisting as unobtrusively as possible in the reacclimatization process. Orphaned baby otters, who don't have parents to teach them to swim, are monitored by camera as they practice in a shallow pool; later, braver, they venture into deeper waters. Majestic bald eagles suffering from damaged wings or feet have the benefit of large flight cages to test flying and landing skills between physical-therapy sessions.
Visitors to the clinic leave with educational literature, including a list of things anyone can do to help keep wildlife safe. No matter where you live, you can follow commonsense practices: Drive within the speed limit, and if you hit an animal, stop and do something to help. If you fish, don't leave lines or other gear behind, in the water or on land. Dispose of trash properly, and do not use deadly pesticides and other chemicals. Although you may be tempted, do not remove baby animals that appear to be abandoned. Wildlife advocates call this "kidnapping." People usually do it with the best of intentions, but it is unnecessary. Wild animals routinely leave their young unattended to search for food. Trust that adults will care for their babies. And remember: No matter how cute they look, wild animals do not make good pets. People often find this out too late. "Reuniting a baby animal with his mother gives him the best chance of survival," says Deitschel. Many times, that isn't possible. Fortunately for the thousands of animals that will come to C.R.O.W. this year, skilled wildlife rehabilitation is the next best thing.