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Injured raptors safe at new Calusa Nature Center aviary

January 27, 2019
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This Jan. 23, 2019, photo shows Erica the bald eagle in her enclosure at the Calusa Nature Center in Fort Myers, Fla. After months of stress, uncertainty and shuffled quarters, Gandalf, the great horned owl, is home. A year and a half ago, his very life was at risk _ and not from his car-smashed wing, which healed years ago. (Andrew West/The News-Press via AP)

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — After months of stress, uncertainty and shuffled quarters, Gandalf, the great horned owl, is home.

A year and a half ago, his very life was at risk — and not from his car-smashed wing, which healed years ago.

In July of 2017, state agencies gave the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium a 30-day deadline to get its injured raptors out of its decrepit wooden aviary and into a new one or euthanize the birds. A temporary reprieve allowed the Fort Myers nonprofit to house them in a Bradenton refuge, where they stayed until the new building was complete.

Now, Gandalf perches on a sunlit branch, surveying the surrounding slash pine woods, as his hawk and vulture neighbors preen and doze. The facility’s public grand opening is this month, part of a day-long celebration that will include games, talks, crafts, owl pellet dissection and a falconer’s live demonstration. “He’s bringing several native raptors and he’s also bringing a condor, which will be really cool,” said Mary Wall, the center’s marketing and volunteer coordinator.

In addition to Gandalf and bald eagle Erica, whose wing was destroyed by a hunter’s errant shot, aviary residents include broad-winged and red-shouldered hawks, three turkey vultures and four black vultures, all named Harold.

Bill Hammond calls them “ambassador birds,” each with a story and the potential to connect with human visitors. “You can’t look in the eye of one of these birds for very long without feeling emotions, which is precisely the point,” says the environmental educator and volunteer chair of the center’s 24-member board.

Watching the birds from behind the sturdy new railing, he beams. This moment has been a long time coming for Hammond, one of the volunteer corps who started the 105-acre center back in the 1970s, before returning more than four decades later to try to rescue it.

Once popular and bustling, by 2015, it was floundering with just four employees and no director. The 6,500 members it had in the 1990s had shrunk to fewer than 60.

“During that real crap period of about eight years, we lost most of our best volunteers” Hammond told The News-Press in 2016. “This was the worst-case scenario, the perfect storm. ... When I stepped in, I said, ‘I’ll give you four years. You’re not going to turn this around in less than three.’”

Its woes included transient staffers, an unstable board, dwindling membership, flooding and deferred maintenance on its buildings and aviary. Then, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued an ultimatum: Build a new aviary or lose the birds.

As Hammond got to work — “It’s like a blur when I look back” — agencies created, then extended numerous deadlines for the project, itself plagued by delays, cost overruns and red tape.

One example: A $3,000 permit was required before they could demolish the old aviary, “even though it was falling apart,” Hammond said.

From an original estimate of $60,000, the price ballooned.

“Now, we have a little over $200,000 of donated money in it . . . sponsors and donations from everybody from children giving us their dimes and pennies and quarters to the largest donation of $125,000 (from the McBride Foundation), and it’s still growing.”

And that’s counting all the free material and expertise area corporations pitched in as well, including three gratis redesigns by Fort Myers architect Jeff Mudgett, one of Hammond’s former high school students.

Needs remain — about $18,000 worth, including pavers that will make the surrounding pathway ADA-compliant. “People really like this, except people in wheelchairs and people my age,” laughs Hammond, 80.

But Hammond’s not giving up. The place was built on resourcefulness, after all. Before it even had a building, it existed in bone- and fossil-filled suitcases lugged to classrooms by the Junior League members who founded it with no government operating funds. And aside from the value of its $1-a-year lease from the city of Fort Myers, it still gets no government money.

“It’s been a stone soup project,” Hammond said. “We started with nothing except an old rotten building. And then to try and sell that, in a place that had gone downhill so badly that people had abandoned it was so hard.”

But now, he said, volunteers and members are returning. The membership list of 60 or so in 2015 has risen to 2,000 and he hopes to add another 500.

“It’s really exciting because I feel like we’re really on the cusp of bringing big change,” Wall said. “We have all this new energy.”

Office manager Ian Barksdale agrees.

“It’s all very positive, ” Barksdale said, “And everyone’s dedicated to doing what we’re doing here, which is serving people and helping them experience nature.”

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Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com

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