wildlife care center Florida wildlife rescue centers: Three great free outings for animal lovers
A masked booby at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, a rooster at the Key West Wildlife Center and a barn owl at the Busch Wildlife Center. (Photos: Bonnie Gross and David Blasco.)

If you love to see wildlife when you travel in Florida, then we recommend these three stops along the South Florida coast – non-profit centers that take care of injured wildlife, many of which are too damaged to return to the wild. They’re all free, although donations are welcome.

On our travels, we’ve enjoyed repeated visits to these facilities in Jupiter, Key Largo and Key West, where you can see and learn about a variety of native birds and animals

Unlike facilities for dogs and cats, centers that care for injured wildlife are not tax-supported or operated by governments in Florida.

If you find a pelican with a hurt wing, for example, you have to turn to a non-profit wildlife rehab organization for help. There are several scattered throughout the state, but not all can handle visitors.

Here are three in South Florida that welcome visitors and are worth a brief stop, especially for families.

A volunteer at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary presents an injured barn owl at a program. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A volunteer at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary presents an injured barn owl at a program. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter

The most developed for visitors of the three wildlife centers, the Busch Sanctuary is located on a beautiful forested property where you can see dozens of types of Florida wildlife.

Trail at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter. (Photo: David Blasco)
Trail at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter. (Photo: David Blasco)

The facility isn’t huge, but there are shady trails and boardwalks through several different habitats – pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, cypress wetlands and fresh water ponds.

All along the trails are well-designed enclosures for birds and beasts, ranging from some of the top predators – Florida panther, black bear, alligator and crocodile – and including deer, otter, bobcats, foxes and a wide variety of birds.

We felt lucky to clearly view both the panther and the black bear moving about. Their enclosures are located on a trail that continues onto a wetland observation deck overlooking water-treatment ponds that attract storks, cormorants and anhingas.

There are animal encounters in a small outdoor amphitheater most days at 3 p.m. plus additional programming on same days.

The wildlife sanctuary is a model partnership in that it is located on the grounds of the Loxahatchee River District water treatment facility. (It still depends entirely on donations and fund-raising.)

The park has shaded picnic tables for visitors to use.

The center is closed Sundays.

Busch Wildlife Sanctuary at Loxahatchee River District

Busch Wildlife Sanctuary website

2500 Jupiter Park Drive

Jupiter, FL 33458

Florida Rambler story on Busch Wildlife Sanctuary

At the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier, five birds walk on boardwalk past other caged birds.
At the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier, you see as many birds outside the cages as inside them. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Key Largo

If you’ve driven to the Keys, you’ve passed the small sign for this center in a wooded area on the bay side of the Overseas Highway in Tavernier. Next time, stop for a few minutes.

I love the setting of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center – boardwalks through mangroves and wetlands that lead to a beautiful view of Florida Bay, where you often see wading birds and pelicans.

Pelican at Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, Tavernier
Pelicans crowd the walkways at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center.

Along the boardwalk are cages holding some 90 grand birds that are too injured to be released – Leopold the Barred Owl, Samson and Delilah the Great Horned Owls, Casper the Barn Owl.

But at feeding time, the place is full of birds outside the cages, too, with pelicans, herons and egrets hanging around hoping to snatch a snack. A volunteer busy feeding the birds told us: “We have no problem with birds breaking out, our problem is preventing birds from breaking in.”

The center was started by a Laura Quinn, “the bird lady,” a mathematician who moved to the Keys with her husband because they were sailors. She began rescuing and rehabilitating birds with the help of a local vet and soon her home-grown rehab facility needed more room.  She found a 5.5-acre waterfront property on which only three-quarters of an acre could be developed; this became both her home and the bird center. She died in 2010.

Today, that property is one of the last saltwater tidal ponds in the Keys and is a great place to see native vegetation as well as animals.

The non-profit that operates the sanctuary also has a modern hospital down the street, which is not open to the public.

Like the other facilities, the Keys Wild Bird Center is free and no one will ask you for money, but a $10 donation is suggested.

Open daily.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center website

93600 Overseas Hwy. MM 93.6

Tavernier, FL 33070

(305) 852-4486

Florida Rambler story on Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

Peggy Coontz of the Key West Wildlife Center holds a sick chicken that was brought in for care. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Peggy Coontz of the Key West Wildlife Center holds a sick chicken that was brought in for care. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Key West Wildlife Center

I first visited the Key West Wildlife Center when I was exploring an off-the-beaten-path corner of Key West that is home to the picturesque West Martello Tower and Botanical Garden.

The free gardens are worth a visit and while you’re there, you should cross the street to see the 8-acre park that is home to the Key West Wildlife Center. The center has two aviaries and a short nature trail that winds through native plants and a freshwater pond that attracts a good number of herons, egrets and other birds.

Rooster at Key West Wildlife Center
Rooster at Key West Wildlife Center, ready to be moved to an organic farm in Central Florida.

In the aviary and rehab flight area, the center nurtures back to health injured hawks, pelicans, osprey, heron, egrets and other birds.

One of the unique roles of Key West Wildlife Center is serving as an adoption agency for the feral chickens that you see everywhere in Key West. Since 2009, the city has paid the center to care for the injured, sick or just plain annoying chickens that are a part of Key West daily life.

Where did the chickens come from? When people stopped the laborious process of turning live chickens into Sunday dinner many decades ago, some backyard chickens gained their freedom. Other roosters were released when cock-fighting became illegal.

But the chickens can be bothersome, and thus the Wildlife Center has a program where residents can borrow a trap and bring the captured fowl to the center. The chickens are fed and cared for, getting fat and healthy, according to Animal Care Director Peggy Coontz. Then, when enough chickens have been gathered, they are trucked to farms and stables in central and northern Florida. The chickens are useful on organic farms where they eat bugs; all the chickens go to sites where they live free-range

There are so many chickens in Key West that there is often a waiting list to borrow a trap, and as of early September 2019, the Wildlife Center had relocated 1,169 chickens, Coontz said.

Beyond the chicken program, however, the center is solely focused on wild animals, Coontz added.

The center is closed Wednesdays.

Key West Wildlife Center

Key West Wildlife Center web site

1801 White Street

Key West FL 33040


Florida Rambler article on Key West chickens

Bubblebutt, first and longest permanent resident of the Turtle Hospital
Bubblebutt, first and longest permanent resident of the Turtle Hospital.

A fourth wildlife center to visit, but one with a fee

The Turtle Hospital in Marathon

This rehab center is a fascinating stop. Tickets are $25 for a 90-minute educational tour, but you can console yourself that your money is going to support the rehabilitation of magnificent endangered sea turtles. You’ll go behind the scene and see and hear the stories of many turtles, some of which are permanent residents because of severe injuries.  Over the years, the Turtle Hospital has rehabilitated and released more than 1,000 turtles, not counting hatchlings.

The Turtle Hospital

Turtle Hospital website

2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon

Admission: $25 for adults; $12 for children 4 to 12.

Reservations are recommended: 305-743-2552. Tours are on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Florida Rambler story on Turtle Hospital


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