Playing Dr. Dolittle

By: Lynn Waddell

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Read about Florida's wildlife rescue and conservation efforts at Big Cat Rescue, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Critters sometimes need rehab and retirement homes, too. Sure, you can see tigers, lions, dolphins and other wildlife in zoos and theme parks, but in the spirit of Dr. Dolittle, we wanted to see where animal doctors mend feathers and fins – and in the process maybe even get close enough to talk to the animals ourselves.

My husband (James), our 8-year-old little brother through the Big Brother/Big Sister program (Bradley) and I set out to visit the Tampa Bay area, which is not only home to the nation’s top beaches but also to some of the largest animal hospitals and sanctuaries in the United States.

Since most of the animals are injured because of an encounter with man – a tangle in a fishing line, clip by a boat propeller or mistreatment by an owner – the animal hospitals give us a sense of how important it is to respect nature. They also give us an opportunity to see a wild creature in a virtual animal club med.

Wildlife on Easy Street

The turn onto Easy Street in Tampa is easy to miss. Bradley spots the small green “Cat Sanctuary” sign that points the way. We pull onto a long dusty, single-lane road that leads us into a jungle of lions, tigers and bearcats.

Big Cat Rescue is the nation’s largest accredited sanctuary for exotic cats. The 55-acre property is home to more than 100 animals. Tours are welcome but well-controlled because the cats are there for convalescence, not display. For kids over 10 years, the sanctuary offers keeper, day, feeding and night tours. Those over 18 years can see the big cats at night or spend a day with a keeper. We take the Saturday morning children’s tour, which allows those under 10 years to participate.

“You’ve come on a good day,” says Dr. Liz, our volunteer guide. “The animals are friskier when it’s cold.” Bradley wiggles inside his hooded sweatshirt; it’s only 55 degrees, but we’re Floridians with blood as thin as water. Even still, his wide brown eyes tell me he’s squirming with excitement.

Dr. Liz leads us through a wide mulched maze between “cat-a-tats,” the sanctuary’s name for its large private cages. Each is outlined by a shorter fence so there’s no chance of escape, but Dr. Liz warns the kids to stay back and to walk, not run.

Bradley’s head spins in all directions searching for cats amidst tall grass, bushes and man-made caves. A lynx paces near the fence, and Dr. Liz explains the difference between it and a bobcat, which is climbing through tall grass in a pen across the way.

Bradley hangs on to Dr. Liz’s every word, and although he’s normally shy around strangers, he asks several questions. “You mean they can hear like dogs can smell?” he asks about the big-eared Servals, after Dr. Liz says they can hear prey borrowing under the ground.

Not every animal at the sanctuary is feline, or even wild; many housecats cautiously roam the grounds. A bushy, black and raccoon-shaped critter colloquially called a “bearcat,” has a cat-a-tat that smells strangely like popcorn. The kids crack up when Dr. Liz points out that the smell is his urine.

Nearby, a cougar lounges underneath a towering oak in the fingers of morning sunlight and raises her head is if to say hello. “A man who owned her used to walk her on a leash,” Dr. Liz says. “What do you think is going to happen if you guys had a pet cougar and wanted to go on a vacation? Who’s going to come watch him?”

An underlying message of the sanctuary tour is to not breed wild cats in captivity or try to make one a house pet. Other than a couple of retired circus cats, many of the animals came to the sanctuary after their owners found they didn’t make good pets. Some had been neglected, injured or saved from furriers and hunters. Their wounds are doctored, and they are given more room to roam than most have ever had. One tiger, Dr. Liz explains, was raised on a concrete slab and had never touched the ground before arriving at the rescue center. A 400-pound lion was kept in a basement and later abandoned before being rescued and nursed back to health by the center; he now has a three-acre home.

For every sad story, there is picture of joy and survival: a black leopard rolling on his back and pawing at the air like a kitten, a white tiger playing with a pumpkin and a cougar purring as she rubs against the fence like a housecat brushing against the leg of a chair.

These cats were born in captivity. They cannot be returned to the wild because they couldn’t survive, explains Dr. Liz. Instead, they’ll spend the rest of their days at the sanctuary – which is a rather nice place to be, considering the rich diet of chicken and game, and the flowing landscaped pools.

Bradley’s favorite resident? “It’s a tie,” he says, “between the black leopard and that bearcat whose pee smelled like popcorn.”

Feathered Friends

At the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, founded in 1971 by zoologist Ralph Heath, the patients have it so good they sometimes don’t want to say goodbye. We discover this right away when a pelican wearing a metal ankle bracelet (worn by former patients) fearlessly waddles up and looks us over before attempting to sneak into an outdoor convalescing pen.

Unlike Big Cat Rescue, the seabird hospital releases about 80 percent of its patients back into the wild. And that’s a lot of feathers. The Indian Shores facility is the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital in the U.S.; it treats as many as 8,000 birds a year.

Patients arrive via good-natured humans – hospital volunteers and everyday people – who find birds with broken wings or hooked with fishing lures. Those that can’t survive in the wild move into the hospital’s outdoor assisted-living aviaries; viewing hours are between 9 a.m. and sundown every day of the year.

Just steps from the sand, the sanctuary offers free tours of aviaries Wednesdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., but we opt for a self-guided one. Bradley rushes immediately to the smaller roofed retreats where beautiful flat-faced owls wink at him from their perch.

We wander the pathways between aviaries filled with dozens of waddling pelicans, seagulls, colorful rosette spoonbills, blue herons, red-shouldered hawks, snowy egrets, ospreys, ducks, terns, ibises and more. In one aviary, a volunteer feeds the juvenile pelicans one by one. Each catches a tossed fish, swallows it down its expandable gullet and then moves to the back of the flock.

“How do you know which ones you’ve fed?” Bradley asks.

“They are pretty good about taking turns,” the volunteer explains as he tosses out another small dead fish to the giant bill of the next pelican in line.

In the adjacent pen, young Eastern Brown Pelicans nest on small stick platforms just above the ground. This hospital is one of only a few places where the species are bred in captivity and the young are released into the wild. The island coastal birds were once endangered due to pesticides, but now they are commonly seen on the adjoining beach, diving for dinner.

We walk along that beach after our tour and are surrounded by whirlwind of wings. Seagulls, pelicans, sandbills and more take flight against a tawny sunset sky, enjoying freedom and good health that this sanctuary’s Dr. Dolittles have assured them.

A Dolphin’s Tale

Across the bay from downtown Clearwater, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, swims a uniquely famous dolphin: Winter, the only dolphin missing an entire tail.

To learn more about her life, we take a behind-the-scenes tour, which also teaches us about other rescued marine animals. Bradley is a chatterbox the whole way there.

Perched on the Intracoastal Waterway, the round, blue aquarium is primarily a hospital. It treats injured marine animals and releases them back to the sea as long as they can still survive there. Those that can’t make it on their own, remain permanent residents and, like children, need stimulation.

In terms of dolphins, that means playing games with trainers that we get front-row seats to watch. In the main dolphin pool, Nicholas swims on his back, retrieves toys and does flips to the buzz of a trainer’s whistle. He is rewarded with sumptuous smelly fish.

After the show, our guide Michele leads us to the adjoining pool where Winter rests across a rubber raft without her prosthetic tail. The bottlenose dolphin can only wear it a few hours a day, Michele explains as she lets us hold the specially-made rubbery prosthesis.

Being tail-less doesn’t slow down Winter, who slides over the raft, dives and swims side-to-side like a shark before surfacing next to us. The dolphin, which was near death when rescued from the snarls of a crab trap line, learned to adapt to her handicap. Caretakers worry, however, that her new swimming style may injure her spine.

To prevent that, a prothetist who heard about Winter created her an artificial tail with material that is now also being used to make human prosthetics.

We leave Winter to her admiring fans and Michele takes us downstairs where holding pools are filled with green sea turtles that weigh more than Bradley. He’s all eyes inside the operating room where injured marine life gets stitched. In the kitchen, a volunteer prepares individual dinners of octopus and fish for most patients and greens and carrots for the vegetarian green sea turtles.

Back in the public area at Stingray Beach, Bradley stretches to touch the soft slippery back of a passing ray. “I got it!” he shouts and is ready to move on to something else.

We head for the aquarium’s theater. The 20-minute documentary is about Winter and the marine rescue work done at CMA. In their smiling faces you see inspiration. We leave the theater wiping our eyes and end our tour of animal hospitals with an appreciation of how much they help wild animals – and humans, too.

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