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For the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, moving to its new location in Navarre last year was a challenge, from securing grants and fundraising approximately $750,000 for the project, to working through construction delays and moving all the animals safely more than 20 miles down the road to their new home.
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But it was a challenge that came with a sweet reward. The move was something of a fresh start for the 25-year-old organization, which was leaving behind a cramped and aging building on Okaloosa Island.
The new location on a 2.3-acre quiet wooded lot features two new 2,200-square-foot buildings, one for education and outreach and another for the treatment and rehabilitation of wildlife. Surrounding the buildings are outdoor habitats for the refuge’s permanent “Animal Ambassador” residents, a boardwalk to the education building, and a variety of enclosures for transitioning wildlife back to nature.
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The refuge officially opened in its new home in December and it looked like staff and volunteers could bask in the glow of what they had accomplished.
Then came the coronavirus and the economic shutdown of Florida.
“I really thought our next big challenge would be a hurricane evacuation,” said refuge Executive Director Stormy Andersen on Wednesday. “We had that plan down.”
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Instead, the refuge’s board of directors found themselves having to make the difficult decision to close the refuge’s new education and outreach center to the public.
The refuge is still taking in injured or orphaned wildlife seven days per week, but staff now meet people bringing in animals at the gate and gather most of the intake information over the phone.
“We’re still providing animal care as we always have,” said Andersen. “But our business plan includes educational offerings, special events and being open to the public.”
Andersen said the closure has dramatically impacted the refuge’s operating income at one of its busiest times of the year, baby animal season.
Inside the medical rehabilitation building, Intern Maddy Ellis and Senior Volunteer Mentor Diane Lawson tube feed baby formula to young opossums and squirrels, some of the approximately 50 animals currently being cared for at the refuge.
It’s a process repeated every couple of hours and a good example of where expenses can pile up quickly. From squirrels to songbirds and skunks to raccoons, each animal takes a specific formula tailored to its needs and there’s no shortage of hungry mouths to feed.
“I try to budget for about $5,000 in formula every year,” said Andersen.
An additional blow to the refuge came when they made the painful decision to cancel a March 20 golf tournament fundraiser at The Club at Hidden Creek, one of the refuge’s four major fundraisers for the year.
“We are having to make some really hard calls on what we can and can’t do,” said Andersen.
And it’s not just the financial constraints she’s talking about. The physical distancing guidelines issued by the CDC preclude some of work refuge personnel did before.
One area particularly impacted is the refuge’s response to marine mammal strandings.
“We’re having to stagger the responses and send people out in smaller groups,” said Andersen, who notes that team members working in close proximity to each other around injured or deceased animals will need to be completely equipped with personal protective equipment.
The refuge has also put on hold the training of new volunteers, which typically takes place in close quarters.
One bright spot is what volunteers have been able to accomplish on the grounds outside. Working in small groups, volunteers have recently completed a new fox habitat and are working on a multi-species rehabilitation habitat and a turtle pond.
Andersen said she doesn’t know yet when the refuge will re-open to the public, which will depend on recommendations from the government. But that hasn’t stopped her from looking to a future beyond COVID-19.
The long-term plans haven’t changed,” said Anderson. “We’re still going to have events, summer camps, and we’re still expecting to do a 5K run.”
And in the meantime, she takes comfort in the current crop of tiny, furry residents.
“It’s hard not to be hopeful when you have babies,” said Anderson. “They’re just so joyful.”
Want to help? Visit emeraldcoastwildliferefuge.org for more information.