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Behind the scenes at CROW shows how to rehabilitate animals

By Staff | Mar 25, 2015

Willow Bender, the Senior Wildlife Rehabilitator at CROW, holds one of the rehabilitating gopher tortoises during a tour Wednesday, March 11. BRIAN WIERIMA

Once a wild animal leaves its nest, den or the protection of its mother, they are pretty much on their own for the rest of their lives.

That is unless they are injured or orphaned, resulting by either humans or by other animals.

Since 1968, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife has been a stop for up to 4,000 wounded animals a year and a place for the injured to rehab and make it back out into the wild.

The 12.5-acre CROW campus is located on Sanibel, just off of Sanibel-Captiva Road and has rehabbed thousands of raccoons, otters, pelicans, eagles, ospreys, possums, turtles and whatever furry, scaly or feathery animal is brought to them.

The newer 4,800-square-foot hospital opened its doors in 2009, after Hurricane Charley severely damaged the old hospital and a successful $3 million campaign was raised.

Since then, hundreds of students have enrolled as interns, externs or year-long graduate internships to help provide care for the wounded animals.

Now, CROW offers tours, allowing the public to peek behind the curtain to see firsthand how these animals are rehabbed.

CROW Education and Visitor Center Coordinator Rachel Rainbolt, guides tours around the hospital and the 17 rehab enclosures, which offers animals their natural environments under protected conditions, which is the last stop right before their release.

“We have a paid staff of 13, but rely heavily on volunteers, who assist in every aspect of CROW,” Rainbolt said. “We also have students from all over the world assisting our vets.”

It takes nearly $1 million a year to run all aspects of CROW and it receives no federal dollars, with much of the costs covered by donations and fundraisers.

The journey of a sick or injured animal starts with a compassionate person finding and bringing it into CROW, which also have volunteers to pick up reported animals, as well.

There are over 200 different kinds of species of birds, mammals and reptiles annually which go through the rehab process.

“The animals are usually transported to the hospital in either a carrier or cardboard box,” Rainbolt said. “They are then assessed and if need be, are rehydrated by subcutaneous fluid injections.”

Dr. Heather Barron oversees each patients’ care, student teaching and wildlife research. CROW is the only licensed sea turtle hospital on the Gulf coast from the Florida Keys to Sarasota, so they are a usual destination for Loggerhead turtles which have been either struck by a boat, have hook-and-line injuries or suffering from Red Tide poisoning.

“We have up to 30-45 sea turtles come through a year,” Rainbolt said. “We also have up to 1,000 anestathic procedures a year for surgeries on all the animals.”

CROW does not accept invasive or exotic species, which are animals who have a negative impact on the surrounding environment, since it is not of their own.

“Florida has the highest level of biodiversity in the U.S., giving us the most amount of native species in the country,” Rainbolt said. “But it also means we have the most exotic invasive species, as well.”

The clinic has many functions, including the ability to take X-rays, perform surgeries and start the rehab process for the injured animals.

In many cases, the CROW staff has to raise orphaned raccoons or otters. They will be bottle fed and also given vaccines, then raised until they can be safely released out into the wild.

Another common injury are the ones dealing with hook and line, which affect mostly pelicans.

“While 95 percent of our gopher tortoise injuries occur after being hit by a car, 95 percent of our pelican patients are a result of hook and line,” Rainbolt said. “They regularly swallow hooks and have to have surgery to remove them. Our success rate is pretty high, too.”

In case you do hook a bird with fishing line, reel them in, secure them in a blanket and before cutting your line, leave at least a foot of it, in case the CROW vets have to perform surgery to remove the hook.

CROW also houses permanent residents, including an osprey which had to have one of its wing amputated. It is now living a comfortable life on the CROW grounds and also is a life saver for its own kind as a blood donor.

Sneezy the opossum, also stays full-time at the CROW clinic, after it was hit by a car and had to have extensive jaw surgery to save his life.

The enclosures outside of the clinic is the final stop for rehabbing animals. There are 17 different enclosures, which include ones for shorebirds, larger raptures such as eagles and ospreys and mammals, such as raccoons, opossums and otters.

The inside of the enclosures replicate the animals’ natural environment, so it can transition for its life back in the wild.

There have been some “famous” residents, as well. Currently, CROW is rehabbing its largest gopher tortoise ever, which lives on the Koreshan State Park grounds. It has a nasty cold and is recovering well.

“The doctors estimated his age at 100 years old, with the average tortoise living between 50-75 years,” said Senior Wildlife Rehabilitator Willow Bender. “He is also about twice the size of a normal gopher tortoise.”

CROW also has received what is thought of as Southwest Florida’s most famous bald eagle, Ozzie.

“It is extremely likely that this bald eagle that is currently in CROW’s care is ‘Ozzie’ due to the photographs and description sent to CROW from the operators of the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam,” said CROW marketing manager Kenny Howell. “It has been confirmed that the bald eagle does have a fractured clavicle and will need a few weeks of rehabilitation at CROW.”

Individuals can volunteer or donate funds to CROW by visiting their website at www.crowclinic.org or call 239-472-3644 or email at info@crowclinic.org.

The website is also a good tool to instruct individuals how to handle the wild animals before bringing them into CROW, or call them to pick them up.

The newest programs offered by CROW include the “Wildlife Walk” which cost $20 per person and are reservable on a first come, first serve basis.

There is also “Lunch and Learn including Hospital Tour with Dr. Barron” which also requires a reservation, by calling Rainbolt at 239-472-3644 extension 228.