Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge: 'We teach anyone who will listen'

By Jody Conrad | Special to the Press Gazette

Question: when is it a good time to take in an animal found in the wild and domesticate it? 

According to Crystie Baker, executive director of the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, the answer is “never.”

Stephanie Scott shows off Tator, the one legged gohper tortoise.

“Most of the animals that we are sheltering started out as pets by well-intentioned people,” said Stephanie Scott, an employee at the center. “Baby squirrels who fall out of nests, raccoons that get used to eating your dog’s food, exotic pets from faraway places that outgrew the owner’s expectations, you name it, we take it in.”

Baker added that any animal whose natural habitat is the great outdoors is soon become unreleasable into the wild.

“Animals quickly lose their ability to fend for themselves,” she said.

This red tailed hawk imprinted on a human and now cannot be released back into the wild.

In an average year, about 2,000 animals are brought to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge that either need to be rehabilitated from an injury, or cared for for the rest of their lives.

Baker, who is a herpetologist and educator, said the center’s aim is to educate the public about why wildlife do not make for good pets, and to care for those for whom it’s too late.

“We also teach locals how to identify native animals and what to do when they encounter them,” she said.

The employees and volunteers frequently take some of their animals to show when they speak with local groups. 

“We teach anyone who will listen,” Baker said, explaining that they are frequently on field trips. “We’ll take Rose the raccoon, or Riley the skunk, or Loxy the fox. Kids are fascinated with visuals, and it helps them to remember the lessons we teach about respecting wildlife.”

This leopard gecko, a native of India, was taken to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge after its owner abandoned it on the beach.

The Wildlife Refuge receives no state or federal funding, so their ability to rehabilitate wildlife depends upon their education outreach programs like the summer camps they just held, donations from individuals, and fundraisers.

“We host an annual golf outing at Hidden Creek and it’s a great way to support our efforts here,” Baker said.

The Wildlife Refuge is where locals can take injured wildlife. Local resident Caesi Williamson walked in bearing a black racer injured by fishing nets.

“He was in pretty bad shape,” she said, “so I kept him in my bathtub overnight and brought him here for the doctors to fix up. They take good care of the animals here.”

The center is located at 3051 Cloptons Circle in Navarre.