Of all the animals that arrived at the rescue center before and after Hurricane Irma — two baby squirrels, a white dove and a raccoon whose paw got trapped in a toy — the one that most impresses Martha Frassica-Rivera is the tortoise.
The giant Gopher tortoise is a protected native species of the southern United States, and also a valued member of the animal world because it digs burrows that serve as refuge for another 360 species.
“It is a very important species for our ecosystem because many animals depend on it,” said Frassica-Rivera. “I'm so happy that people make an effort to rescue them from danger and bring them here.”
Frassica-Rivera is the administrator at the Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue in Homestead, a wildlife rescue center that rehabilitates animals and returns them to their natural habitat whenever possible.
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In the days leading up to the hurricane, people started arriving with animals that were found on the side of the road or in other risky situations, like the raccoon.
“An elderly couple brought the raccoon, who had its paw stuck in a toy and was at risk of having it broken. We were able to get it out of the toy and let the raccoon go,” Frassica-Rivera said. “We already had a lot of work safeguarding our animals but our mission does not stop because of a hurricane.”
The refuge, which has more than 500 animals, including panthers, tigers, a bear and dozens of birds, was founded in 1991 by Bob and Barbara Freer.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew almost completely destroyed the shelter, which is a non-profit organization. But the founders and volunteers were able to “rescue it from the ashes.” The center now features a museum and offers educational tours on the seven-acre site, located at 35601 SW 192nd Ave.
Hurricane Irma's strong winds and rain damaged the roof of the museum and part of a large fence that, by law, must surround the refuge. In addition, with electricity out for a week, meat and other food for the animals stored in a refrigerator had to be thrown out.
Luckily, none of the animals was harmed.
Most animals in the shelter have been taken from people who either cannot legally have them, or were rescued from abusive or dangerous situations.
“We heal them, feed them and make sure they can see, hear and eat well before letting them go back to the wild,” Frassica-Rivera said.
For information on the shelter visit evergladesoutpost.org or call 305-247-8000.
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar