Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park is haven for orphaned, injured animals

The Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park in Crestview is not a normal zoo.

At the park, fennec foxes — a type of fox with light brown fur, a small head and large ears — rest peacefully in their enclosures. Children can hand-feed muntjac deer — a small, funny-looking deer with fanged teeth like a dog. And a trio of large cats sleep loudly in their cages, occasionally slinking to the fence for check-ups and food. 

The park is a refuge for orphaned, injured and sick animals, according to Hodge Cherry, Assistant Director of the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge. The ECWR saves and rehabilitates animals from all over Northwest Florida at its refuge on Okaloosa Island, but occasionally, when an animal cannot be released back into the wild, it is taken to the zoo in Crestview.

However, most of the animals at the zoo today were already there when the refuge took it over three years ago. 

"This used to be a privately owned zoo, and the previous owners were struggling to keep it up," Cherry said. "So when our organization took it over, the whole thing was a rescue."

The zoo currently has just under 100 different animals; a mixture of domestic animals, livestock and wild animals. 

"We have new animals come in from time to time," Cherry said. "Some of them come from the refuge. Some of them come from zoos that didn't have a place for them. It's a case-by-case basis."

Unlike most zoos, which breed their animals, the Wildlife Refuge zoo does not. The animals there are all rescued and rehabilitated with no place in the wild or anywhere else.

The main purpose of the refuge zoo, according to Cherry, is educating the public about the different animals.

"We do constant education," he said. "That's the best part of our day, when we get to talk to somebody about our animals that we love, about their natural history and all of their behaviors."

The wide array of animals at the zoo have, naturally, a wide array of behaviors. In the otter exhibit, for example, which is among the zoo's newest attractions, otters can be seen poking their heads up in their glass enclosure whenever humans walk by. Levi the lion entertains guests when Cherry feeds him, sometimes having him stand on his hind legs.

Cherry is quick to point out that, though the animals' behaviors can be entertaining, the animals are in no way forced to do anything they don't want to. 

"They're pretty food- and attention-motivated," Cherry said. "We only practice positive reinforcement here. If they don't want to do it, then they don't."

Cherry added that the refuge center on Okaloosa Island is, in many ways, dependent on the zoo in Crestview. Profits from the zoo go directly to funding the care and rehabilitation of animals in the refuge. In addition to charging admission, Cherry said the zoo also hosts birthday parties and paid animal encounters, like feeding sloths. 

"It takes a lot of money to run both these facilities," Cherry said. "The zoo ideally would help the refuge out. They both rely heavily on donations, volunteers and interns. ... If we're triaging animals, just the medicine it takes to treat those animals is so expensive."

The zoo also accepts donations in the form of funded exhibits. It also hosts seasonal events, such as last year's Halloween haunted house and this year's Easter Egg Hunt. 

William Anderson took his 3-year-old daughter, Alana, to the zoo last Tuesday. Alana giggled as they fed one of the billy goats in the petting zoo area.

"We love it here, especially how you can interact with all the animals," Anderson said. "I like the fact that it's a refuge too, and not just a normal zoo."

Kelly Fryman was at the zoo Tuesday with her granddaughter, 2-year-old Gracie Golloher.

"She just kept saying, 'I want to go to the zoo', so here we are," Fryman said. "I love this. It's perfect for someone like her because you have just a short walk around and you can enjoy everything. She really enjoyed the otter display. I actually got a shot of her and the otter staring at each other." 

For more information about the refuge and the zoo, visit their Facebook page by searching "Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park" or call them at 850-682-3949.