Walter Meszaros used a high-pitched voice when he talked to the young raccoons.
“Come on, y’all. C’mon,” he said.
Meszaros is a volunteer at the Wildlife Rescue Coalition of Northeast Florida’s rescue center on Jacksonville’s Westside. the center is trying to recover from Hurricane Irma and other recent setbacks. He was trying to entice the raccoons to eat the food he had brought them. But they kept clinging to each other and the chain-link walls of their enclosure.
“I know you’re scared of the people,” he said, noting several visitors. “C’mon.”
An animal lover since childhood, Meszaros is clearly fond of the raccoons. He talks to them, brings them food and makes sure their water bowl is full. But he maintains a distance because they are being prepared for release in a few months.
“There is nothing more gratifying than them being released,” he said, noting that many of the challenges faced by such wildlife are caused by humans. “I feel I owe it to them.”
Founded in 2003, the nonprofit coalition is a group of residents, volunteers, experts, rehabilitators, veterinarians and wildlife advocates who care for injured or abandoned wildlife, mostly small animals such as raccoons, squirrels, fox and opossums. The sanctuary began in the rural Westside backyard of founder Barbara Tidwell, received federal nonprofit status in 2004 and moved to larger quarters on donated land on Seaboard Avenue in 2005.
At any one time, as many as 250 wild animals from Duval, Baker, Clay, Flagler, Nassau, St. Johns and Putnam counties may be housed at the center undergoing rehabilitation or in foster care. With the help of several area animal hospitals, Tidwell and her crew of volunteers and foster families nurse such guests back to health and ultimately release them in wilderness — with the owners’ permission — or find new homes for them.
But the coalition had a rough September, said Tidwell, who also owns and operates assisted-living homes for seniors.
First came Hurricane Irma: High winds led to many baby animals falling out of tree nests and being injured or abandoned, swamping rescues. Also, since the center’s location is flood prone, wildlife residents had to be evacuated to Tidwell’s property.
Then the day after Irma blew through, a generator malfunctioned and started a fire at her home that destroyed the coalition’s administrative office and storage area. No humans or animals were hurt, but the nonprofit lost computers, appliances, office supplies, forms and cards and T-shirts, among other things.
But the public donated many replacement items, Tidwell said.
“This has drastically reduced our financial savings as we try to recover from the fire and the surge of animals following the hurricane. Between the storm and the fire, it … [was] a hard few weeks, but we are amazed at the response from the community,” she said.
Restoration is under way at the fire-damaged space at Tidwell’s home, while the nonprofit continues to rebound. The center is now in its slow season, with fewer rescue calls, but the busy season is approaching.
March through October, as warmer weather moves in, animals get friskier and more wildlife babies arrive. As development further encroaches into their territory, more and more of them get caught in threatening or deadly encounters.
HAVING A PURPOSE
Kali Gennette is associate veterinarian at Clay Humane, a nonprofit, low-cost animal clinic in Orange Park that works with the coalition, providing veterinary care as needed for sick and injured wildlife. Rescue groups and the animal hospitals willing to treat wildlife “are essential to the community,” especially a growing community, she said.
“With less and less natural habitat, neighboring wildlife is forced to live more closely to our homes and to cross busy streets just to access appropriate food and breeding grounds,” she said. “If we did not exist, then these animals would suffer and many people would feel helpless when they witness an injured animal with no place to take them.”
On a recent morning at the center, residents included Charlotte, a young pig who was found alone running along an interstate; Stitch, a baby raccoon who was slashed in a chainsaw accident; and a gopher tortoise that had been chewed on by a dog.
Tidwell sees the coalition’s mission as not only caring for such injured or abandoned wildlife, but helping educate the public on how to co-exist with them.
“It’s about learning to live in harmony,” she said.
For instance, she cautioned well-meaning people to think twice before picking up baby squirrels and taking them to animal hospitals. If they fell out of a tree nest, put them back — their mother will likely return soon. Rescue them only if they appear injured, she said.
When in doubt, she said, call the coalition hotline.
As the coalition readies for the busy season, Tidwell is also seeking new — hopefully donated — quarters for the center. Development is coming nearby and the assortment of mobile buildings and handmade animal shelters that make up the center now are aging.
She envisions a three- to five-acre tract, agriculturally zoned, with a structure already there and water and electrical service.
“We need a forever home,” she said.
Meanwhile, the coalition is helping train veterinary students at Florida vet schools, who learn about wildlife by volunteering as interns at the center. Gennette, who coordinates the program, said experience with wildlife can be invaluable for veterinary students.
“As a student, I was fortunate to complete an internship with the Florida Wildlife Hospital in Melbourne. … I continue to regularly use the skills and knowledge I gained,” she said.
When Gennette first became involved with the coalition in 2015, she said she “quickly realized that student interns would be a wonderful asset for the organization and I knew through my experience that a wildlife internship would also be beneficial for the students.”
She and Tidwell started a pilot program in 2016 with one student. Last summer about 15 students spent at least four weeks interning at the center.
They learned about wildlife medicine, basic technical skills and the importance of teamwork “as they all worked toward a common goal of rehabilitating and releasing animals back to the wild,” Gennette said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109