If you love to see wildlife when you travel in Florida, then we recommend these three stops along the South Florida coast – non-profit Florida wildlife rescue 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 Floirda wildlife rescue centers 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, Florida wildlife rescue 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.
Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter
The most developed for visitors of the three Florida wildlife rescue centers, the Busch Sanctuary is located on a beautiful forested property where you can see dozens of types of Florida wildlife.
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
2500 Jupiter Park Drive
Jupiter, FL 33458
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.
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 Florida wildlife rescue centers, the Keys Wild Bird Center is free and no one will ask you for money, but a $10 donation is suggested.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
93600 Overseas Hwy. MM 93.6
Tavernier, FL 33070
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.
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
1801 White Street
Key West FL 33040
A fourth wildlife center to visit, but one with a fee
The Turtle Hospital in Marathon
This Florida wildlife rescue center is a fascinating stop. Tickets are $27 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
2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon
Admission: $27 for adults; $13 for children 4 to 12.
Reservations are recommended: 305-743-2552. Tours are on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.