For the past eight years, the Emerald Coast Wildlife has managed to care for Florida’s natural fauna from the old Okaloosa Island Fire Station.
The rent has been good — the nonprofit has a $1 a year lease with Okaloosa County. But the facility is cramped and hinders refuge staff and volunteers from fulfilling their mission.
“(The fire department) moved out of there for a reason,” said ECWR Executive Director Carol Andersen. “It’s a decrepit building, but we have a great lease. Unfortunately, it has holes in the roof and we get rain in there. We flooded a little bit with the last hurricane. Heating and cooling are tough…it wasn’t purpose-built for us.”
Last year, Andersen and her husband, Bill (who is the board president), donated a 2.238-acre property on Clopton’s Circle in Holley Navarre in hopes of starting a new chapter for the refuge. After winning a $100,300 grant from IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay Area last month, the nonprofit has raised about 60 percent of the estimated $720,000 cost to build the medical and educational facilities.
A new facility tucked away in a natural environment would be a “game changer” for the refuge, said Andersen.
“We’ll have a dedicated facility where it is set up like an animal hospital — where we actually go from intake to pre-op, to surgery to post-op to recovery rooms — versus the haphazard situation we’re in,” she added. “There won’t be any holes in the roof, we’ll have windows that open and close, good air conditioning.”
Andersen wasted no time putting the grant money to use. Just three days after receiving the large check, there were construction workers at the site working on one of the buildings.
Along with an updated medical facility, Andersen is looking forward to having a dedicated space for an education center where kids, and adults, can learn about conservation and living in harmony with wildlife. Visitors will also be able to meet the menagerie of “ambassadors” who were cared for by the refuge but could not be released into the wild. There’s snakes, flying squirrels, a skunk and Reba, the rose-haired tarantula to name a few.
With the IMPACT grant, Andersen said she would like to focus on Title 1 schools, which have high numbers of low-income students.
The Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge was established in 1994, when the founder, George Gray, came across a stranded baby dolphin in the Santa Rosa Sound. For the first few years, the nonprofit existed out of volunteer’s homes. The Holley Navarre site is meant to be a permanent home for the refuge. Andersen is hopeful that at least part of the facilities will be built by January 2019.
When Andersen purchased the property in 2015, she had always envisioned that it would be a peaceful escape to nature. It’s covered with live oaks, magnolia trees, azalea bushes, camellias, blueberries “and all of their cousins.” It better suits the mission of the refuge, she said.
“Putting that animal back into the wild — that’s what this is really about,” said Andersen. “We’re going to have kids here learning about the environment, and our critters, and coexistence, and conservation but at the same time we have a whole other mission trying to take care of animals and putting them back into the wild.”
“I’m so excited and anxious to get this done.”
For more information about the refuge, visit emeraldcoastwildliferefuge.org