gopher tortoise

WaterLine file photo

A gopher tortoise heads for its burrow — its primary shelter in cold weather.

Peace River Wildlife Center started off the year on a positive note by releasing eight gopher tortoises that had been in rehab, some as long as five months. We can release gopher tortoises only when there will not be temperatures below 55 degrees for at least three consecutive days.

We always release the tortoises back to their home territory, but we don’t always know exactly where their burrows are. We take them back to within a mile of where they were found, in the safest area away from traffic, and hope they can find their way back to their main burrow or at least one of their ancillary ones. Giving them at least three days to do so gives them the advantage of finding the shelter of their burrows before the next cold snap.

This winter began with the usual yo-yo of a cool day or two, followed by two warm days. That’s great for my pathetic winter wardrobe, which consists of one pair of jeans and two sweatshirts. But it didn’t give us the warm stretch we needed for the tortoises. Finally, the last week of December and the first couple weeks of January were warm enough for long enough that we were able to get some of our rehabilitated tortoises back to their homes.

Some had been chewed on by dogs. A few survived being hit by cars. Others had suffered from upper respiratory diseases. The recovered tortoises had been piling up over the weeks as multiple cold fronts continued to pelt us. Luckily for us, we don’t have to over-winter animals like some of the northern rehabbers do. I complain about three days of temperatures below 70 degrees. Those poor saps can spend three months in sub-freezing weather. (Let’s pretend I’m not grinning fiendishly as I type that.)

The tortoises not only had a variety of reasons for being in rehab, they came from a myriad of locations. Their homes were in Englewood, Arcadia, Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and Wauchula. After shuffling gopher tortoises back out into the wild like dealing a hand of far-flung poker, it was time to get down to tabulating last year’s intakes.

With 2018 in the rearview mirror and 2019 looming large on the horizon, it is time for everyone to take inventory and do some personal introspection. It is no different for us here at Peace River Wildlife Center — except that ours is mandated by law. We file annual reports with the state and federal wildlife commissions, reporting all the animals we admitted, what happened to them, how we treated them, and what their final outcomes were. It’s a little more complicated than promising yourself that this is the year you really are going to lose that weight, quit smoking and get a gym membership, because we’re required to tell the truth.

PRWC saw a total of 2,422 patients in 2018. Continuing a trend from last year, we had a few more mammals than birds, which is the opposite of what we have seen historically. Since PRWC’s educational exhibits include mostly birds, many people thank we treat only avian species. Our 2018 statistics show we treated 45 percent birds, 47 percent mammals and 8 percent reptiles.

We saw a total of 110 different bird species, 20 different mammals, and 23 different reptiles. The top four types of birds were mourning doves (180), northern mockingbirds (99), common grackles (65) and red-shouldered hawks (34). These four species accounted for 378 patients, which was 35 percent of all avian patients or 16 percent of our total intakes.

The four most common mammals seen were eastern cottontails (508), Virginia opossums (197), eastern gray squirrels (153) and raccoons (123). Those four species comprised 981 patients, 86 percent of all the mammals or 40 percent of our total patient load. Most of those mammals are admitted as infants and juveniles and require months of intensive care before they are ready to be released.

Gopher tortoises (108) comprised the majority of reptiles we saw: 54 percent of all reptiles, but still less than 1 percent of total patients. Considering the time it takes for this species to heal after an injury or illness, they spend a great deal of time (and rehabber effort) in our facility.

One of the most important figures at year’s end is patient outcome. Overall, PRWC had a positive outcome for 42 percent of our patients, which meant a negative outcome for 58 percent. A positive outcome includes patients that recovered well enough to be released or were transferred to another facility for continued care or to become an education resident.

It is an unfortunate fact that some patients are dead on arrival, or very nearly so. After removing patients that do not survive the first 24 hours of care, our positive outcome increases to 79 percent. For those of you keeping score with me, that number is slightly lower than last year’s 81 percent.

The reason for the statistically insignificant decrease is that our dedicated rehab team has expanded. With more helping hands, they attempted to save some of the patients that might previously have been considered too far gone to survive. After days or weeks of treatment, some of those critically ill animals did not survive, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

Thanks to the community that supports us both financially and by volunteering their time, PRWC is able to help the injured, ill, and orphaned wild animals in and around Charlotte County. A huge thanks to our employees who, while being paid to do the job, could be making much more money if employed by a for-profit company. Wildlife rehabilitation is a labor of love, and we all love the animals we are able to help and all the other people who assist us in that endeavor.

This year, I think I’ll donate my gym membership money to PRWC. We all know it’s really just a donation to the gym anyway. I’m never going to go there. I pay the membership fee and the only thing that ever gets exercised is my mind, thinking up excuses why I can’t go to the gym.

Join PRWC from 4 to 6 p.m. this Friday, Jan. 11, for our Sunset Celebration. We’ll stay open an additional two hours as the sun sets, allowing you to see the birds in a whole new light.

Peace River Wildlife Center is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the care, preservation and protection of Charlotte County’s native wildlife since 1978. They are open seven days a week year-round, including holidays. Tours are offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. PRWC receives no government funding and relies entirely on private donations. For more info, visit PRWildlife.org, email PeaceRiverWildlife@yahoo.com or call 941-637-3830.

Peace River Wildlife Center is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the care, preservation and protection of Charlotte County’s native wildlife since 1978. They are open seven days a week year-round, including holidays. Tours are offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. PRWC receives no government funding and relies entirely on private donations. For more info, visit PRWildlife.org, email PeaceRiverWildlife@yahoo.com or call 941-637-3830.

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