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‘Possible vandalism’ to renowned bathrooms at refuge

By Staff | Jun 23, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED On June 15, “possible vandalism” was discovered to a baby manatee sculpture that is part of the educational wall mural found at the Visitor & Education Center's outside bathrooms at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

The “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge recently reported that its award-winning Learning Lavatories was damaged.

On June 15, the refuge’s administration was notified by DDWS staff members about “possible vandalism” to a baby manatee sculpture that is part of the educational wall mural found at the Visitor & Education Center’s outside bathrooms, according to Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland.

“Vandalism is few and far between at the refuge,” she said. “It’s always shocking.”

Westland explained that it appears as if someone picked at or pulled apart the manatee’s flipper. The one-of-a-kind 3-D sculpture, made of recycled bicycle tires, was created by artist Andrew Corke.

“Part of the flipper on the baby manatee was torn off,” she said.

PHOTO PROVIDED On June 15, “possible vandalism” was discovered to a baby manatee sculpture that is part of the educational wall mural found at the Visitor & Education Center's outside bathrooms at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Staff are unsure of when the damage occurred; it may have been over the previous weekend.

A report has been filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement arm.

“They cover any cases like this,” Westland said. “So this will be dealt with internally (at the refuge).”

While Wildlife Drive and the trails at the refuge have remained open for the public throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the center and outdoor bathrooms have been closed off by roping and signs.

“No one was allowed on the ramp and at the center,” she said. “We never had those bathrooms open.”

PHOTO PROVIDED On June 15, “possible vandalism” was discovered to a baby manatee sculpture that is part of the educational wall mural found at the Visitor & Education Center's outside bathrooms at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

And, while not at its full staffing levels, essential personnel have been onsite since the closure.

“So this was surprising that this happened,” Westland said.

Funded by a $125,000 grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District and contributions from private donors, Project Learning Lavatories features educational imagery inside of the restrooms and on the hallway leading up to them. The wall and ceiling murals immerse the public in a virtual underwater experience, where they come eye-to-eye with 3-D wildlife and can see creatures “swimming” above.

It is the winner of the 2018 America’s Best Restroom contest by the Cintas Corporation.

Earlier this year, the refuge and DDWS received a Public Lands Alliance Partnership Award for Outstanding Public Engagement for Product or Display for their joint effort in creating the project.

Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland

“This is obviously another success story of the friends group,” she said of the accolades.

“It’s a beautiful piece of art,” Westland noted.

Unfortunately for the refuge, Corke has since moved away from Sanibel. DDWS Executive Director Birgie Miller is currently working with him to identify a local artist who can repair the sculpture.

“It’s his art,” she said. “You never just bring in an artist to fix someone else’s work.”

“So now we’re having to find someone who can repair it,” Westland added.

There is an urgency to fix the sculpture before the Visitor & Education Center reopens its doors, she explained. In staff’s experience, vandalism left unaddressed tends to breed even more vandalism.

Westland cited one instance when someone wrote initials into a tree along the trails.

“Once somebody did it, other people started doing it,” she said.

Anyone with information about the damage to the manatee’s flipper or who thinks they saw something wrong is asked to contact 239-472-1100 ext. 237 and leave a message; they can do so anonymously.

“They are checked daily,” Westland said of the voicemail.

Any local artists or craftspersons who believe they can help with temporary or permanent repairs to the sculpture can contact DDWS Executive Director Birgie Miller at director@dingdarlingsociety.org.

To make a gift to help repair the baby manatee, visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org/donation.