Florida is famous for its plants and animals so it stands to reason a state built on tourism would fight invasive species to keep its native populations going strong. But in Key West, birds of many feathers, flock together.
The Key West Wildlife Center is tucked behind a large group of palm trees, in a shady parking lot across from a busy beach. But it’s little corner of paradise is drastically different from the short island shrubs and hot pavement spread right out in front of it.
Tom Sweets is the Center’s Executive director. The small, non-profit rescues injured wildlife from across the Keys but it focuses mostly on birds. Right now, it’s baby season in Key West. The Center's animal care director, Peggy Coontz, is feeding baby mocking birds in the center's tiny clinic. "It’s very small and humble, but a lot of good things happen here," she says.
The center has other babies in different stages, called nestling and pre-fledgings. Another resident is one of the keys most well-known birds: the brown pelican. In this case, it’s a young female, whose age is determined by her color: she’s a combination of varying shades of gray and white. As she gets older, she will begin to turn brown, says Sweets.
“We’re sort of out of season for pelicans now, but during late fall/ winter, instead of baby birds, we’d have pelicans."
This pelican started off dehydrated, most likely because she’s so young and didn’t know how to hunt very well. But she’s on her way to recovery.
The Center will keep some animals, like a turkey vulture who was hit by a car. It’s injuries have prevented it from being released in the wild.. Sweets says the center’s job is to rescue, rehabilitate and release most of he animals that come to it, and he says that’s made possible by cooperation between organizations like his throughout the Keys.
“In the Keys, it’s critical. Our environment is our economy down here. A lot of people come to see the beauty and the paradise and we have to work together to keep that up," Sweets says.
Key West is home to several local groups whose mission includes protecting the island chain’s animal inhabitants—from the endangered Key West deer, to the invasive green iguana, to sea turtles and even chickens.