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Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Preps for Peak Hurricane Season

For local wildlife refuges, such as Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, hurricane season is the most important and busiest time of the year.<br/><br/>

For local wildlife sanctuaries, like Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, everyday is a busy day. However, hurricane season, which runs from June 30 to November 30, is the most demanding and important time of the year.

Michelle Pettis, Director of Animal Care at the refuge, points to the destructive nature of tropical systems.

“Hurricanes can cause a significant increase in our rescues just because the weather can affect their habitats.”

Pettis also says they’re prepared to handle any outcome.

“We have a weather protocol here, and we are always on the lookout. If we are staying here we have generators so we can keep all the animals warm and fridges nice and cold with all of their food. If we do have to evacuate our staff and our experienced volunteers are all lined up to take certain animals to their home to care for them for the duration of the Hurricane.”

Their most recent extreme weather response was to Hurricane Sally last September. Looking back, Pettis says the storm was more detrimental for the area than they had anticipated.

“After Hurricane Sally, we saw 57 animals the next day. That was the largest animal intake in a single day we have ever had.”

Pettis recalled the overwhelming intake of coastal wildlife.

“We had something we didn’t expect, which was a lot of shorebirds that became severely entangled from fishing lines blowing closer to shore. It got to the point where I think we took in about 27 pelicans in a matter of days, which is an extraordinary increase from our normal amount. It was very odd and it required a lot of skill to be able to free them safely with all the birds still being very active”

Pettis warns that entanglement hazards should be left to trained professionals.

“If you see that an animal is entangled or hooked, do not try and remove the animal from the entanglement yourself.”

However, the public does play an important role in the animal-rescue process, and Pettis encourages people to keep an eye out for animals in distress following severe weather.

“After a storm, your backyard is one of the first places you can just do a visual check for wildlife. Especially if you have pets that are more inclined to play or find different types of wildlife, we want to minimize those interactions. Nests can get blown out of trees, and not just fall out but get destroyed.”

Residents can help, but Pettis points out that there are standard protocols for finding young animals out of their nests after a hurricane, or for any other reason.

“If you find a baby mammal or a baby bird on the ground, the first thing to do is to look for their nest to see if it is intact. If it is, you can go ahead and take that bird and go replace it in that nest.”

Providing such information is part of the mission of Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge to inform and educate the public and dispel common misconceptions about animal rescue that can have a negative impact on wildlife.

“Some people are worried that if they touch a baby bird with their hands the mother won't come back, but that is a complete myth.”

In addition to inland animals, our shores are also a place of high concern for wildlife post hurricane. As noted earlier, shorebirds can be injured by the more-rough surf. But more common following hurricanes is stranded sea life onshore.

Brittany Dolan

Brittany Dolan, the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator for Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, explains what to do if you come across a stranded animal.

“The most important thing if you see a stranded animal is to stop what you are doing, and give us a phone call at 850-684-1485. Whoever answers that will give you instructions.”

Stranded marine animals need specialized care, she says.

“We always need people to know, if these animals strand and hit the beach they need medical attention. Keep a safe distance from the animal. If it's on the beach it is sick or injured, let trained responders manage that animal. Under no circumstances should you push an animal back into the water.”

Even when there is no active storm threat, Dolan advises some day-to-day actions the public can take to help local wildlife thrive and avoid injury.

“If you are down at the beach and you see trash, pick it up. Leave nothing but footprints. Keep our beaches clean, and never throw anything off of boats.”

To learn more about Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge and how to support their mission, visit emeraldcoastwildliferefuge.org. To report injured animals, call 850-684-1485.