CROW Case of the Week: Animal Ambassadors

Biscuit, the gopher tortoise is CROW’s latest animal ambassador photo by Brian Bohlman
Biscuit, the gopher tortoise is CROW’s latest animal ambassador photo by Brian Bohlman

Who do you think would make a great representative or promoter of your business?

At CROW, that specific team member would be an animal, of course.

Since 2012, CROW has instituted an animal ambassador program to provide an educational home for critters who are unable to be released into the wild. Dr. Heather Barron, CROW’S medical and research director, instituted the program to utilize these animals as foster parents, blood donors and as an educational outreach for an up-close experience with wildlife.

“She realized how critical it would be for our mission to start an animal ambassador program,” said CROW Rehabilitation Manager Breanna Frankel. “With our education outreach starting to grow, we realized that it would be much more successful if people were able to have one-on-one, in-person experiences. The animal ambassadors would serve as species representations of patients we treat at CROW, and serve other functions such as being blood donors, foster parents, etc.”

CROW has six animals in the animal ambassador program: Lola, the American kestrel; Talon, the red-tailed hawk; Mina, the great horned owl; Billy, the nine-banded armadillo; Gigi, the Virginia opossum; and Biscuit, the gopher tortoise, the most recent addition.

Lola, who arrived in March of 2013, suffered from a broken wing that had not healed correctly. She was capable of short flights but would not be able to fly well enough to hunt in the wild. Frankel said Lola’s “flight abilities are diminishing as she ages” but called her “an excellent species ambassador.”

Talon arrived at the clinic in January of 2014 with a broken left wing. The fracture had already healed incorrectly, and he was unable to fly. Frankel said Talon is CROW’s “most used animal for blood transfusions.”

Mina was admitted 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. “She has come a long way. Aside from assisting with regular duties, she also participates in research outings with Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI), trapping swallow-tailed kites for satellite tracking,” said Frankel.

Billy arrived in April of 2017 as an orphan that was weak and malnourished. The rehabilitation team nursed him back to health, but since armadillos were classified as a nonnative or invasive species by FWC at the time, Billy was unable to be released. The classification was changed recently to reflect that armadillos have naturally expanded their range to include Florida. Billy has since become too accustomed to human care to live a successful life in the wild.

Gigi was admitted in April of 2019 after she was found orphaned with her two siblings. She had sustained a traumatic amputation of most of her tail. Since wild opossums use their prehensile tails for balance and climbing to escape from predators, Gigi would not be a successful opossum in the wild. “She has changed thousands of minds regarding common opossum myths,” noted Frankel.

Then there’s Biscuit, who came to the clinic at just a few months old after being attacked by a dog. Frankel said, “The dog unfortunately caused rear leg damage, and Biscuit cannot use the leg appropriately – it drags behind him/ her. This would lead to significant issues in the wild with abrasions and potential infection. Due to the difficulty, Biscuit was added to our program because our previous gopher tortoise ambassador healed enough over a few years to be fully rehabilitated and released back to the wild. They are a keystone species, so they are incredibly important for people to learn about. Some of our live animal exhibit animals have had food names over the past two years, and Biscuit fit right in with Pancake, Waffle and Chip (aka, chocolate chip). Apparently, we like breakfast foods! Biscuit is also the perfect size of a biscuit but is growing quite rapidly.”

The rehabilitation staff spends countless hours training and building trust with these animals so that they can remain relaxed around crowds.

“These animals teach us something new every single day. Watching their training progress, watching them interact with people and watching them change minds across the country is the greatest feeling in the world,” said Frankel. “The bonds you can create with the animals is astounding, and earning their trust is a very high honor. Some of our favorite days are ones spent with our ambassador animals.”

CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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