Animals that do not fully recover from injuries or illnesses still can live a productive life, though probably not in the wild. While these creatures have received physically and/or mentally debilitating injuries and are deemed nonreleasable, they still have the opportunity to acclimate from forager to educator. Enter the animal ambassador.
At CROW, countless animals have come to the medical hospital from around Southwest Florida with various injuries. Many of these patients have been successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild where they were first found wounded.
Unfortunately, even while CROW medical staff provides outstanding treatment to all patients, some are just beyond repair. Instead of giving up on these animals, they have been given a second chance as a wildlife ambassador. These animals are used during presentations and programs for an up close experience with wildlife. This new role allows children and adults to get up close and personal with creatures from around the world. CROW began its animal ambassador program in 2012 to provide an educational home for these creatures.
The clinic’s rehabilitation staff spends countless hours training and building trust with these animals so they can remain relaxed around crowds. CROW officials believe education is an integral part of the nonprofit organization and essential to its mission. Many are sent to exhibition facilities to teach audiences of all ages the importance of respecting wildlife.
“One of my favorite things about working with these animals is being able to build trust and have a relationship with them as a handler,” said Breanna Frankel, CROW rehabilitation manager. “Mina, the great horned owl, for example, is an amazingly beautiful, powerful creature which would be capable of killing me if she wanted to, but knowing that she trusts me enough to feel comfortable and safe with me is very rewarding.”
Animals have become quite effective in their roles as ambassadors, thus increasing human awareness. CROW currently has five animal ambassadors that participate in daily presentations and off-site programs.
Mina, a great-horned owl (pictured above with Frankel), arrived to the clinic in December of 2016 with a partially amputated right wing. The injury had mostly healed by the time she was brought to the clinic, but rendered her unable to fly.
Talon, a red-tailed hawk, arrived to the clinic in January of 2014 with a broken left wing. The fracture had already healed incorrectly, and he was unable to fly.
Lola, an American kestrel (pictured left), arrived in March of 2013 after she was found in a front yard in Cape Coral. She also had suffered a broken wing which had not healed correctly. She is capable of short flights, but would not be able fly well enough to hunt in the wild.
Bashful, a Virginia opossum (pictured below), arrived in May of 2016 after he was found circling in a person’s front yard. He had suffered some kind of trauma which caused neurologic issues. According to CROW officials, Bashful no longer knows how to be an opossum. He does not “play dead” or become defensive like an opossum normally would do to defend itself from a predator.
Shelldon, a gopher tortoise, arrived to the clinic in July of 2015 after he was struck and dragged along the pavement by a vehicle. As a result, he suffered extensive damage to the underside of his shell (the plastron), had a fractured upper shell (the carapace), and lost a majority of the nails on his front limbs. The shell injuries have healed; however, his nails have never grown back. Without them he is unable to dig a burrow, which is vital to a wild gopher tortoise’s survival.
In addition to the animal ambassadors, CROW also has a number of live animal exhibits in its visitor education center showcasing native versus invasive species in Southwest Florida. CROW staff members say visitors are always excited to meet Sydney, the American alligator; Billy, the nine-banded armadillo; and Violet, the Eastern indigo snake. While wildlife ambassadors have become accustomed to be more receptive of people, CROW officials point out it is vital that facility visitors know that these animals are still wild.
“Even though animal ambassadors have been conditioned to be more tolerant of human contact, it ’s crucial that audiences are aware that these animals are not pets,” said CROW Development & Education Coordinator Rachel Rainbolt in an earlier column. “They are wildlife and still maintain all of the same fears and anxieties as if they were in their natural surroundings. Proper safety must be exercised at all times, so ambassadors are under close supervision of CROW’s staff, students and volunteers during programs.”
CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.