It all started in 1986, with an orphaned baby duck.
Ed Straight was visiting his sister in Leesburg. One afternoon, at a nearby lake, they watched as a mother duck drove away one of its young, attacking it each time it approached. The mother's behavior seemed puzzling, almost cruel; her duckling was far too small to survive on its own. Ed's paramedic training took over. He brought the little bird home to Anna Maria island and his wife, Gail.
But in spite of their best efforts, the duckling soon died. They realized that it had been sick from the start, and that its mother had simply acted out of instinct.
From that experience came their idea for a center where wild creatures, whether abandoned or injured, could be nursed back to health. Although Sarasota has sanctuaries for injured seabirds, there was no local critical care facility for other wildlife, such as songbirds, squirrels, foxes, and raccoons. Gail became a licensed wildlife rehabber, permits were obtained, and within a year Wildlife Inc. was born.
Animals are prey to all sorts of dangers, many of them a result of inhabiting urban neighborhoods, the dangers are great. They are struck by cars, burned by power lines, entangled in fishing lines, mauled by pets, poisoned, even shot. Some are the victims of naturally occurring diseases. Bad weather also takes a toll; each fall, for example, the Straights take in hundreds of baby squirrels and mourning dove chicks blown out of their nests during thunderstorms.
Until last year, Gail was Wildlife Inc.'s only full-time employee. Then Ed retired from his job as Chief of Manatee County's 911 Center, a post he'd held for 13 years. Now he and Gail run things together. For several years Gail has also served as president of the Florida Wildlife Rehabilitation Association, networking with other rehabilitators, and organizing training sessions and symposiums. Without such training and education, it's easy for a well-intentioned novice to do more harm than good, the Straights note. Every species has different needs and dietary requirements, and ignorance can prove fatal.
The Straights are assisted in their work by about a half dozen highly dedicated part-time volunteers. Ailing animals arrive at their door in an endless stream; Wildlife Inc. treats about 90 per cent of Manatee County's sick and injured wildlife, and about half of Sarasota's. All this healing doesn't come cheap; their annual operating expenses have grown from a mere $10 in 1987 to $54,000 as of last year. Over half, $30,000, goes for food. Fundraising is an ongoing challenge, and the center's budget is a constant concern.
Although they're seeking a new, roomier location, the Straights still operate from their home on Anna Maria Island. Inside, a former kitchen has been converted into a nursery and medical ward. Their smallest and most helpless patients are treated here. The nursery is most crowded in the fall, when portable cages are filled with hungry baby squirrels. The room is also the domain of Jackson, an adult Colombian iguana, who oversees daily operations from his perch atop a refrigerator.
The babies are fed a special puppy milk formula at least four times a day. If they aspirate the mixture, taking it into their lungs, they can die, so they're fed slowly and carefully, one by one, with a large syringe with a nipple on the end. When their little bellies are swollen to the size of a man's thumb, they've had enough, and are tucked back into their blanket-lined cages.
Most of the center's permanent residents, those animals too disabled to be returned to the wild, are kept outside, as are the larger, healthier birds of prey. One cage holds a quartet of wide-eyed screech owls recuperating from a variety of ills. Beside it, unperturbed by the presence of humans, a lone, rehabilitated screech owl stands guard on a bamboo stump. Although free to fly, he's chosen to stick around, roosting quietly beside his old cellmates during the day, patrolling the yard for roaches and frogs by night.
Wild animal rehabilitation has its rewards, but it's also dangerous. Recently, Ed was attacked by a great horned owl and was fortunate to escape with only a few scratches. In a separate incident with a red-tailed hawk, Gail wasn't so lucky. One day, with no forewarning, the big hawk sunk its talons into her leg and wouldn't let go. Determined not to harm the bird, she remained in its cage until a volunteer showed up and fetched a sedative to temporarily knock it out.
But neither she nor Ed consider their efforts heroic or even out of the ordinary. "There was a need for somebody to take care of wildlife, and it was something we were capable of," Ed says simply. "The more we did it, the more we enjoyed it. And when you're helping wildlife, you're helping people, too."
You can learn more about Ed and Gail Straight on the worldwide web, at www.wildlifeinc.org. If you find a wild animal that is in distress, call them at (941) 778 6324.