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August 20, 2009

Busy Wildlife Center at Hub of Animal Care

The Humane Society of the United States

by Julie Hauserman

South Florida’s wacky side is a favorite subject for novelists and filmmakers – And why not? It’s full of exotic people, exotic plants, and a bumper crop of exotic pets and intriguing wild animals.

Behind the entertaining veneer, though, there’s an ugly reality: South Florida’s large, constantly changing human population takes a huge toll on the region’s wild and domestic animals.

All Kinds of Critters

On a 4.1-acre plot near the Fort Lauderdale airport, the Wildlife Care Center in Broward County is teeming with animals in need and humans doing their best to help. Alligators, giant lizards, and huge constrictor snakes bask in the humid air. Recuperating pelicans splash in a donated spa tub. Squawking macaws, conures, cockatiels, and parrots provide a tropical soundtrack as workers hand-feed orphaned opossum, raccoon, and squirrel babies. Veterinarians rush to save wild animals abused, hit by cars or boats, and snagged in fishing lines.

It’s a hectic pace. The center, which recently became the fifth animal care center under the auspices of The Humane Society of the United States, rescues up to 14,000 injured, abandoned, or abused native wild animals and exotic domestic animals each year. The center either releases them back to the wild or finds them adoptive homes. More than 200 different species come through the doors every year.

Sixty staff members and some 600 volunteers care for 400 to 900 animals at any one time. The center doesn’t accept dogs or cats, but instead offers medical care, shelter, and adoption services for many animals who don’t belong in the pet trade in the first place.

Dual Roles

“The center fills a niche that nobody else has filled, which is that it operates both as a wildlife rehabilitation facility and as a home and adoption center for animals most local shelters are not able to deal with,” said Richard Farinato, The HSUS’ senior director for animal care centers.

“They get the gamut – from a budgie who shows up at someone’s bird feeder, to the exotic snake slithering into someone’s back yard, to the pig or goat found wandering the streets of Miami,” Farinato said. “These are special needs animals, for sure.”

Right now, for example, the center is looking for someone to adopt Petunia, a domestic pig found abandoned in the back yard of a foreclosed South Florida home. Also up for adoption: dozens of bunnies, guinea pigs, rats, and pet gerbils abandoned by their owners for one reason or another.

“People who have lost homes and lost jobs have nowhere to keep their animal companions,” said the center’s new director, Sherry Schlueter. “We are adamant about accepting species others wouldn’t. Every animal is an individual and every animal should be viewed as an individual. That’s what we try to do.”

Animal Cop and Caretaker

For Schlueter, taking the helm as the center’s director completes a circle that began in 1969, when she was a teenager working as a volunteer for a local wildlife rehabilitator named Bea Humphries. Humphries rescued, rehabilitated, and released wild animals from her South Florida home. When her home-based wildlife rescue got too big, Humphries founded the SPCA Wildlife Care Center. It moved to its current Fort Lauderdale location in 1979.

In the intervening years, Schlueter built an impressive 36-year career in animal welfare. She spent six and a half years as an investigator with The Humane Society of Broward County, then joined the Broward County Sheriff’s Office as a sworn law enforcement officer in 1979. She spent several years on road patrol, following up on animal abuse cases whenever she could. 

In 1982, she founded the sheriff’s animal abuse unit and became an expert on the connection between animal cruelty and human violence. Realizing that Florida needed stronger laws to prosecute animal abusers, Schlueter co-authored and lobbied for a statewide law that made animal abuse a felony in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Before becoming the center’s director in July, Schlueter was the top “animal cop” at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. She led the department’s Special Victims and Family Crimes section.
 
“I’ve seen more than my share of awful,” she said. “Working here, I’m surrounded by people who are concerned with the well-being of animals.”

Many Ways to Help

A baby otter.© SPCA Wildlife Care Center
Take the wildlife center’s so-called “Bunny Brigade,” a group of volunteers who remove  bunnies from their cages for exercise, pet them, trim their nails, and otherwise love them.

Or the pilot who donated a plane ride so an orphaned baby otter could join a surrogate otter mama at a wildlife rescue center in Northeast Florida. The baby was later released to live his life in the wild.

“When we release these animals, we try to release them near where they were found if possible,” Schlueter said. “We want them to have a great life.”

And no one should forget the brave souls who rescued an alligator in June who was discovered confined to an apartment bathtub, a fishing hook jabbed through his snout.

“The police brought him to us,” said Judy LaRose, the wildlife center’s senior director of animal services. “Believe it or not, people go out to the Everglades and catch baby alligators, like they’re going to be good pets!”

At the wildlife center, workers removed the hook from the gator’s snout, and the reptile was released back into the South Florida swamp. The man who kept him in the bathtub was prosecuted for animal cruelty.

“Our goal is to increase the survivability of animals people bring in here,” Schlueter said. “I hope to make positive changes that will increase the intake of all species in need of our help, and improve our adoptions of domestic species so that animals can get into high-quality loving homes as quickly as possible.”

Temporary Quarters 

“This is a safe holding pattern for animals in need,” Farinato added. “This is a way-station and hopefully they will move on to a permanent home, be they pig or parakeet or bearded dragon. You do what you have to do to make their lives better.”

Schlueter has served as vice president of the Wildlife Care Center for many years. Even as it joins The HSUS' family of animal care and protection programs, the wildlife center will retain its management, distinctive programs and local identity.

With the addition of the Wildlife Care Center, the HSUS is one of the largest and most diverse providers of direct care for animals in the United States. The HSUS directly cared for more than 70,000 animals in 2008 through its sanctuaries, rehabilitation centers, spay and neuter services, mobile veterinary clinics, disaster response, and other programs.

The other animal care centers, operated in partnership with the Fund for Animals, include the Cape Wildlife Center in Massachusetts, the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas (with more than 1,000 large mammals, including more than 700 horses and other equines), the Wildlife Center in Ramona, Calif., and the Duchess Sanctuary in Oregon, a horse sanctuary.

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