Fly Free

The Sunshine State's busiest animal hospital aims to spread its wings

Turkey vultures are big: more than two feet long, with a wingspan of up to six feet. They need a lot of room -- especially when they're learning to fly. But the black-feathered bird with the bare red head that's been at the Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale since November, recovering from a broken leg, can only flap endlessly between two padded perches about 20 feet apart. The chicken-wire cage is about 30 by 20 feet and perhaps 15 feet high.

That's not enough room for a turkey vulture, which has a natural range of up to 20 miles. But it is all that the Wildlife Care Center, located on two acres at 3200 SW Fourth Ave., has for now. In smaller aviaries nearby are an American kestrel and a red-shouldered hawk that also need more space to practice flying. But for that, they must be transported 100 miles to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples, which is the nearest facility with a long flight cage; that strains the center's 32 paid staffers and roughly 200 volunteers, who already have their hands full rescuing and caring for the more than 12,000 animals that pass through the center annually.

The nose and beak count at the nonprofit center has grown rapidly in recent years. So Port Everglades, which owns the land, agreed in 2001 to lease it 2 1/4 adjacent acres. There, the center wants to build its own 100-foot-long flight cage, a $40,000 project, as the first stage in an expansion to meet the ever-growing needs of Florida's animal population.

Birds require the extra space, says Joseph Desalvo, a center employee who releases many of them. "They could be here a week; they could be here a couple of months," Desalvo says. "It all depends on the severity of their injuries or illnesses."

The center, which costs $1 million per year to run and includes the busiest animal hospital in Florida, is a long way from its humble beginnings. Beatrice Humphreys took birds into her garage for almost 20 years before her friends and helpers organized the Wild Bird Center in 1969. As urbanization ate up more wild space, Humphreys and the others began taking in more creatures. In 1971, Port Everglades leased the group its current patch of land, where members started work in one old, wooden building. The center took in about 3000 animals in 1980; by 1993, the number had tripled. Along the way, the name was changed to the Wildlife Care Center to reflect its expanded role.

In 1995, four volunteers complained that the center wasn't properly caring for its charges and was keeping them in dirty cages. The Broward County State Attorney's Office investigated and found no evidence of wrongdoing. The place was dirty, admits Diane Watchinski, the center's director of development. But she says that was because of a chronic shortage of money and help. "When you have old wooden buildings and you are trying to hold things together like we were back in '93, '94, you are going to have problems cleaning things," she says. "I'd say things have improved 1000 percent since those days, and not because anybody wasn't trying but because we had a shortage of staff and old buildings." A fundraising effort paid for extensive renovation in 1996.

Today, the complex is packed with aviaries for pelicans and songbirds, stables for farm animals, chicken coops, rabbit hutches, and cages for turtles, raccoons, and opossums. The center also takes in abandoned pets that are not native to Florida, such as iguanas, potbellied pigs, and prairie dogs; nearly 100 structures housing them all surround a statue of bird lover St. Francis of Assisi on the center's grounds.

The center adopts out pets whenever possible. Wild animals are treated and released in their native areas. Some that cannot be released locally are sent to sanctuaries -- a ranch in Texas, for instance, takes in South Florida's prairie dogs.

The Wildlife Care Center's efforts are essential, says Alan Davis, director of the Animal Care and Regulation Division of Broward County government. "Our job is to do dogs and cats, and we have a tremendous job handling that," Davis says. "So it would be a big burden for us to deal with wildlife. They do a wonderful job as far as we're concerned."

The Wildlife Care Center euthanizes about one-third of the animals it rescues, says Debbie Anderson, the center's director of veterinary services, but only when they are badly injured or incurably ill. By comparison, the county kills healthy dogs and cats if they're not adopted within a few days.

A local animal-rights group gives the center high marks for its commitment to saving rather than destroying its charges. "I think the Wildlife Care Center offers the community a very valuable service by rehabilitating animals and by finding homes for animals that would otherwise be extremely difficult to place," says Heather Lischin, managing director of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida in Pembroke Pines.

Since the center takes animals the county shelter can't, Broward County pays it $100,000 per year. The rest comes from private donations.

For the past few months, volunteers have been building a PVC-pipe-filled habitat for burrowing owls and abandoned prairie dogs. The flight cage is the next project. It needs to be T-shaped so birds can bank, stretching their wings, Anderson says. It also must be about 100 feet long so recovering birds can flap between perches instead of just gliding. Around 200 birds per year need such a flight cage, Anderson says. (The California-based Ludwick Family Foundation has already donated materials for it.)

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