CROW celebrating 50 years of helping Southwest Florida critters
About 50 years ago, Shirley Walter saw a pelican with a broken wing.
She went over to the Fish and Wildlife Office in Sanibel, located in the lighthouse.
When Walter told them about the bird, officials said they couldn’t do anything about it, that their job was only to take care of the refuge.
The steamed New Englander told them, “If you’re not gonna do something about it, somebody else needs to.
“That was it.”
That somebody would be Shirley Walter. She started with two royal terns with sprains from being hit by a car. She took them to her Sanibel home. By year 3, she had helped mend 500 animals from Southwest Florida as well as the southern half of Florida. Walter proceeded to go into the schools where she taught the children and teachers about the creatures living in their backyards and beyond.
And that’s how the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife began.
Many people know of it as CROW.
And the tenets Walter began in 1968 are its foundation today. CROW’s mission is to be a teaching hospital and visitor education center dedicated to saving wildlife through state-of-the-art veterinary care, research, education and conservation medicine.
“We’re the Mayo Clinic of wildlife,” said Dr. Heather Barron, who has been at CROW for seven years. “We take in more than 4,000 patients (annually). Our research has grown and our teaching is very robust with students from all over the world that help us care for our patients. There’s also been a lot of outreach.”
CROW’s budget is kept at $1.4 million because of the more than 200 volunteers. The student volunteer hours alone save CROW about $333,000, Barron said.
Crows have been mended, as have dozens of different birds, raccoons, opossums, pelicans, gopher tortoises, sea turtles, river otters, bobcats and rabbits, or about 150 varied kinds of species.
“To see the day-to-day operations touched my heart,” Dr. Linda Estep said. After volunteering for every job imaginable starting in 2008, she became executive director in 2014. “Dedicated people devoting their lives to the care of wildlife - what an honorable profession to be in.”
Walter had an affinity with animals from her youth in New Hampshire when the family raised three cows, chickens, pigs and a dog.
“We had one cow born on Christmas,” said. “We called her Holly. Whenever we had beef, my brother and I said, ‘Is that Holly?’ If it was, we’d never eat it.”
Most colleges and universities didn’t have courses, much less majors, studying wildlife in the late 1960s.
Walter learned by reading books or conferring with Phyllis and Paul Douglass, Cape Coral veterinarians who mainly specialized in dogs and cats.
“We learned together if you will,” she said.
Walter would bring the animals to her two-bedroom, one-bath West Rocks home in Sanibel where she’d care for them.
“They’re pretty docile, they don’t fight you so much,” she said. “You learn what part of the bird to avoid, like the beak.”
In 1972, CROW incorporated as a nonprofit organization, receiving its 501(c)(3) exemption in 1973. The name was Walter’s idea, partially because she thought crows were smart.
Walter took care of these animals while she was a postal worker on Sanibel. She often found that feeding the animals was almost as challenging as caring for them.
“We’d go to Miami with my Volkswagen van and bring back 600 pounds of fish from the docks as well as food from the Metro zoo,” she said.
Some ladies who established a wildlife rescue in Venice became friends with Walter and they shared information.
Also helpful was Bill Hammond, a Southwest Florida environmental educator for almost six decades, which included being assistant professor of ecological and marine sciences at FGCU. He helped start the marine biology program in Lee County schools.
Hammond earned a stellar reputation in studying nature along with environmental and experiential education focusing on best practices for managing environmental resources. He went on to conduct presentations, training workshops and consultations in 50 states and five Canadian provinces, England, Soviet Union, Republic of Georgia, and 19 Caribbean nations for a wide range of educational, government, business, professional, and nonprofit clients.
“We were bringing in pelicans with hooks and injured birds, sending what we had to CROW in the initial stages,” Hammond said. “Injured raptors. We'd keep them from the public until they could fly again. We had a relationship with CROW from the Calusa Nature system, a delivery system to take the critters out. They’ve grown and done a phenomenal job and are one of the best in the country.
“I can’t compliment Shirley enough. She was a pioneer in the rehabilitation of animals. People like Shirley don’t get the credit they deserve. People forget that.”
Forced to close down in 1976 by new city ordinances, CROW existed in name only for one year. In 1977, Adelaide Cherbonnier offered her Captiva home as a temporary location until CROW was given 10 acres of the Sawbridge tract along Sanibel Captiva Road. With a $35,000 mortgage to build its facility, CROW won city approval and the wildlife clinic became operational in 1981.
“Shirley is an amazing individual,” Barron said. “She’s sharp as a tack. I have a lot of favorite stories. Wildlife medicine wasn’t taught in veterinary schools but she made it her business.
“She’s still one of the most conservation-minded persons I know and it’s really an honor to continue her mission.”
Walters has lived off and on Sanibel over the years. She now lives in Ocala.
She lives with seven parrots, two chihuahuas and yes, a pet chicken.
“I tell you right now, I’m extremely proud of what this has become,” Walters said. “We went to schools in Fort Myers and Cape Coral and they still do. They need to learn, be educated and take care of their surroundings.
“It’s coming to fruition. That’s good.”
Over the last 50 years, CROW has grown into one of the nation’s premier wildlife rehabilitation clinics and is advancing wildlife medicine through clinical research, education, and collaboration. It has created a student program to help train the next generation of wildlife caregivers. It has developed educational programs and an Education Center, with live feed cameras of the hospital, where visitors from across the country come to learn about helping wildlife. CROW has even won an award for its role in protecting and caring for wildlife.
The organization has earned so much respect that injured river otters from all over the state come to Sanibel.
“CROW is about the longest-continual operating 501(c)(3) not associated with an academic institution,” Barron said. “Our budget has doubled as our patient load and care has grown. There hasn’t been a single day when there hasn’t been at least one emergency. We have 100-400 patients on the property getting care at any given time."
CROW saw more than 4,000 patients last year representing 150-plus different species. More than 1,400 of those patients were successfully returned to the wild. There are five animal ambassadors. Barron said animals can’t go into a permanent captive situation unless the government gives a special permit.
Estep has seen how the animals are treated – calmly, quietly with deliberate movements.
“Every patient that comes in is treated as though it’s the most important,” she said.
While education, X-rays, operations and other treatments have advanced over the years, so has human development. Animals are coming into more contact with humans as cities grow.
There also are different diseases to contend with like the West Nile virus or red tide.
“We’re seeing a really different diversity in wildlife today,” Barron said. “Wildlife medicine has significantly expanded the past couple of decades and we feel CROW can continue to be a leader in that area and continue to do the teaching we do.”
On the day of the interview, Barron treated a snail kite, an endangered species federally and locally in Southwest Florida, which was hit by a car. It had several broken bones and needed surgery to repair a ruptured eye. Thanks to staff's care and a steady diet of its favorite food – apple snails – the medium-sized raptor was able to make a recovery and be released.
Every day, Barron said she learns something different.
“Wildlife health has become a very diverse field with the advent of the One World, One Health concept,” Barron said. “CROW is at the forefront of that field and we hope people will come and see all the cool things that we do here and learn more about how wildlife health is important for everyone.
“It’s an amazing organization. And it’s in the perfect place. Look at this area. It’s a real interesting place.”
1968: Founder and islander Shirley Walter starts caring for animals in the backyard of her Sanibel home, which leads to the beginning of Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife or CROW.
1972: CROW is incorporated as a nonprofit organization and receives its 501(c)(3) exemption in 1973.
1974: Sanibel is incorporated.
1975: CROW closes at Shirley Walter’s home.
1976: New Sanibel ordinances force CROW to close down in 1976.
1977: Adelaide Cherbonnier offers her Captiva home as a temporary location.
1980: CROW is given 10 acres of the Sawbridge tract along Sanibel Captiva Road.
1981: With a $35,000 mortgage to build its facility – which includes a third-floor apartment - CROW wins city approval and the wildlife clinic becomes operational.
1982: Staff housing opens with three rooms. Two rehabilitators live on-site.
1985: Volunteer Emergency Rescue & Transport program instituted. More than 1,300 patients are seen.
1987: First veterinarian hired, surgery room installed surgery room; X-ray machine, hand tanks for developing films; stainless steel cages in clinic; student extern program begins.
1992: Original Robert E. Schneider Education Pavilion is built. Daily educational programs begin.
1996: Veterinary internship program begins. Patient total passes 2,000.
1998: Fellowship student program begins.
2004: “Commitment to Compassion” capital campaign begins; Hurricane Charley devastates Sanibel and Captiva; CROW student housing destroyed; an associate veterinarian position is added. Patient total passes 3,000.
2005: Student program continues uninterrupted; remote housing provided by friends of CROW.
2006: The George E. Batchelor Student Housing is completed and occupied by students.
2007: Construction of the visitor education center and hospital begins. CROW treats 164 different species and a record number of patients – 4,146.
2009: CROW celebrates 40th anniversary with opening of a new state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and the 4,800-square-foot Healing Winds Visitor Education Center. The VEC features innovative visitor displays, interactive exhibits, live patient videos, wildlife presentations and special events. Proceeds from an on-site gift store benefit patient care. CROW’s wildlife hospital includes diet preparation areas, a laundry room, reptile room, pediatric ward and surgery room with a viewing window.
2010: CROW unveils renovated sea turtle facilities, introduces a new e-newsletter and launches a new website to highlight range of educational programs and services offered. CROW also implements wildlife partnerships to better educate the public about saving wildlife through compassion, care and education.
2012: CROW begins its animal ambassador program to provide an educational home for animals who are unable to be released into the wild. These animals are used during presentations and programs for an up-close experience with wildlife.
2013: CROW earns first-place distinction from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Gulf of Mexico Program. CROW wins the award for its role in protecting and caring for wildlife native to the Gulf region and toward achieving and preserving healthy and resilient coasts in the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
2014: Live cameras or ‘Critter Cams’ in the hospital intake room and patient enclosures are upgraded. These cameras are viewed in the visitor education center and live streamed on CROW's website.
2015: CROW initiates specialty programs including wildlife walks, lunch & learn, and a yearly speaker series.
2016: CROW establishes an endowment fund for the purpose of providing a self-sustaining source of funding.
2017: CROW introduces live animal exhibits to the visitor education center. These exhibits are designed to teach visitors about the impacts invasive species can have on our native and migratory wildlife.
March 7: Audubon Society deputy executive director Julie Wraithmell will speak at Sanibel Community House
March 23: Southern Comfort Night at Sanibel Community House
March 30-31: CROW Yard Sale
July 4: Parade on Periwinkle Way
Aug. 25: Walk on the Wild Side, Lakes Regional Park
October: CROW Golf Classic
November: Taste of the Islands, Sanibel Community Park
December: Year End Open House Celebration, CROW campus