The five young raccoons crated in the back of the car were as cute as they were stinky, and the strength of that smell made for a long drive out east to a parcel of protected land where Sarasota Magazine creative director Gigi Ortwein, local artist Jean Blackburn and I would be releasing them. Orphaned by Hurricane Ian, these five raccoons had been raised by Wildlife Inc., an animal rehabilitation center on Anna Maria Island, for the past several months.
Each year, Wildlife Inc. rehabs between 3,000 and 4,000 wild animals. “It all started with a single baby duck about 35 years ago,” says Gail Straight, the owner and operators of the education and rehab center. “My husband and son found the little duckling and brought it home. We had a hard time getting help, but we saved it. Then the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asked us to get a permit. We’ve been doing it ever since.”
Since that baby duck, Straight has seen all kinds of wildlife come through her rehab center: eagles, bobcats, possums, skunks, hawks, songbirds, deer—anything native to Florida. “It’s a lot more work than people think it is,” Straight says. “I don’t have a life outside of this.” But Straight feels a sense of duty to these creatures, because it's human behavior that usually brings animals to her doorstep. “We are the ones doing this," she says, "so we should make it right and save them."
@sarasotamagazine Join us as we release orphan raccoons back into the #Florida wild! #sarasota #wildlife #rehab #raccoons #annamariaisland ♬ original sound - sarasotamagazine
Out east, Ortwein, Blackburn and I drove down a dirt rode that crosses a private parcel provided for the release by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and stopped at a wooden fence. Ortwein and Blackburn are both experienced raccoon rescuers. The raccoons’ busy hands reached out from the air vents in their crate and grabbed articles of clothing and strands of hair.
The raccoons were lucky to have been gifted this land. It’s getting harder and harder to find safe places to release wildlife as more and more of Sarasota gets developed. Straight is frustrated by the cycle of development. “All they’re doing is buying out houses and chopping down every tree, which is where these animals live,” Straight says. “People then call and complain because an animal is in their yard. What do you expect when you take their home away?”
When we arrived at the release spot, Blackburn and Ortwein prepped the raccoons' new home with bowls of water and little piles of dog food and they strung up an old canvas tote bag on a tree branch for the animals to sleep in.
When it came time to open the crates, the raccoons did not bound out into wild freedom. Instead, they warily poked their heads out of the crate and squinted their eyes in the sunlight. Slowly but surely, they made their way out into the world and up the trees.
All the pups embraced their new home, except for one who refused to leave the back of the crate. Perhaps he was used to his urban upbringing. He seemed bothered by the mosquitoes that descended upon us. Concerned something might be wrong with his feet, Blackburn and Ortwein wondered if he was ready for the real world. I thought he should tough it out and get used to his new life, but my partners decided to take the little guy back home and release him another time.
The car ride home didn’t smell so bad, but worry quickly set it. It was hard letting the raccoons go into the big, scary world. They were safer in the arms of their temporary adoptive parents. But now, they are where they belong.