Key West Wildlife Center volunteers Shelley and Ellen helping to remove fishing hooks from an injured pelican.
Key West Wildlife Center volunteers Shelley and Ellen helping to remove fishing hooks from an injured pelican. [PHOTO: KWWC]

by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….

I hope you saw my story about the Key West chickens that appeared here in The Blue Paper April 29. In that story, I reported that, for several years, the Key West Wildlife Center (KWWC) has been contracted by the City of Key West to manage a program to rescue injured chickens, provide medical care, and arrange relocation to selected farms and orchards on the mainland where the chickens can retire in peace. As part of my research for that story, I visited the Wildlife Center at Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park on the south end of White Street, met the people there and took a tour of the facility. Frankly, I was surprised and impressed. I realized that, although I have been in Key West for 30 years or so, the closest to the KWWC that I had ever been was the bocci courts next door and the dog park and the White Street Pier. And although I have been a publisher and a writer here for most of that time, I had never written about or published a story about the Wildlife Center. And that surprised me because what I now know is how important the Wildlife Center is to the native birds and other native wildlife in the Lower Keys.

Peggy Coontz with Bald Eagle
Animal Care Director, Peggy Coontz, with Bald Eagle [PHOTO: KWWC]
Removing the American White Pelican from carrier prior to release...
Removing the American White Pelican from carrier prior to release… [PHOTO: KWWC]

Yeah, I knew that the Wildlife Center had something to do with rescuing and treating injured birds and, if possible, releasing them back into the wild. But I had no idea that the people at the Center often rescue and treat as many as 1400 birds a year! In essence, they run a little hospital and an intensive care facility there. But what I also learned is that one of the most amazing things about the Key West Wildlife Center is that it exists at all– the fact that, back in the early 1990s, a group of people spent their time and energy– and found the money– to create a non-profit organization with the sole purpose of simply helping native birds in distress.

The mission of the KWWC is to rescue and rehabilitate sick or injured native wildlife, including wild birds, sea turtles and marine mammals (like dolphins and manatees) and land mammals (like raccoons and opossums), with the hope of releasing them back into the wild. Here are just a few examples of the emergency calls received by the KWWC within the past year or so: Numerous injuries caused by impacts with vehicles or buildings or power poles or by attacks by cats or birds of prey. A frigatebird tangled in fishing line and hanging 25 feet up in a tree. A flamingo stranded on the flight line at the Naval Air Station. A pelican with a fish carcass lodged in its throat. Another pelican with a fish hook through its bottom bill so it couldn’t eat. Other birds with fishing line entanglements and fish hook injuries that made it impossible for them to fly. A bird with an arrow through its back. Migrating birds weak and dehydrated. When I was at the Wildlife Center, Executive Director Tom Sweets had to interrupt our interview when he received a call about an injured pelican. As it turned out, it was a juvenile pelican who was simply weak from dehydration. It was rehabilitated and released.

crew of "Double Down" for spotting and rescuing this juvenile Brown Pelican with a severe pouch tear! — with Double Down Sportfishing.
Crew of charter boat “Double Down” spotted and rescued this juvenile Brown Pelican with a severe pouch tear and brought it to the Wildlife Center. [PHOTO: KWWC]

The little clinic at the Wildlife Center might be compared to a hospital emergency room. Animal Care Director Peggy Coontz, with a degree in wildlife biology, is the KWWC’s primary medical caretaker. Local veterinarians are called in to help when required. Covered aviaries at the Center might be compared to recovery rooms, where the “patients” can receive continued treatment with the goal of release. Not long ago, there were nearly 80 brown pelicans under treatment at the Center. Eventually, all but three were released back into the wild. Of interest: During the fall and winter, the budget just for fish to feed pelicans being treated at the KWWC can range from $10,000 to $12,000 per month. Occasionally, individual animals that have recovered– but would not be able to survive in the wild– are placed in educational settings.

Turtle Hospital Ambulance Driver Matt Brochhausen examines the Green Turtle rescued from Calda Channel at The Key West Wildlife Center
Turtle Hospital Ambulance Driver Matt Brochhausen examines the Green Turtle rescued from Calda Channel at The Key West Wildlife Center [PHOTO: KWWC]

Although the rescue of wild birds is the priority of the staff at the KWWC, they are often the first responders when calls come in concerning marine mammals in distress. “We often receive calls from FWC (Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission) officers about manatees, dolphins or whales in trouble– like entanglements or injuries– and we are asked to go out and check out the situation,” said Executive Director Sweets. “If a rescue is required, we report that back to the FWC, and then we watch over the animal until assets arrive from other organizations. We then assist with the rescue.” Sweets said that the KWWC also rescues raccoons and opossums and, if they are orphaned, the KWWC works with other organizations to get them raised and released.

Also, as previously reported, the KWWC has a annual contract with the City of Key West to rescue sick, injured and orphaned chickens and provide medical care. While they do not directly respond to complaints from citizens about nuisance chickens by going out and trapping those chickens, they do loan traps to citizens to trap chickens themselves and then bring the traps (and the chickens) back to the KWWC. This is a free service, although a $100 deposit is required for the traps. For citizens who do not wish to trap chickens themselves, the KWWC can recommend a local contractor, who can do that for a fee. None of the chickens brought into the Wildlife Center are ever released back into the community. Rather, they are housed there in a large screened enclosure until transportation is arranged to the mainland.

tom sweets and pelican
Executive Director, Tom Sweets, with wounded pelican [PHOTO: KWWC]
The Short-eared Owl rescued yesterday at Stadium Trailer Park suffering from impact related injuries has improved enough today to get a quick picture. This bird is a rare visitor to the Florida Keys. It is more stable today and on the road to recovery and release if it continues to improve....
The Short-eared Owl rescued at Stadium Trailer Park was suffering from impact related injuries. This bird is a rare visitor to the Florida Keys. [PHOTO: KWWC]

The KWWC covers MM 0-20, up to the Big Pine Key area– and rescue service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other rescue organizations cover the rest of the Keys.To do what it does, the Key West Wildlife Center holds permits from both the State and the Feds– the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. These permits allow the KWWC to deal with only wildlife native to the State of Florida– and not non-native species, such as iguanas and parrots. Of course, these restrictions are flexible in emergencies. “We also work closely with Animal Control– the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals),” Sweets said, “especially when it comes to animal cruelty situations. When we encounter such situations, we refer them to the SPCA for investigation and potential prosecution. They are the guys with the badges.”

Dozens of volunteers supplement the more than full-time service of Sweets and Coontz. If you think you might want to volunteer, just drop by the Center or call for more info. Also, if you want to take a look at the KWWC facility, you may take a self-guided tour of the aviaries and nature walk seven days a week, 9am- 5pm. When I took the tour, I saw a couple of visitors enjoying a brown-bag lunch on the benches along to nature walk. A different out-of-the-office lunch idea. The KWWC is located on White Street, in the Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park, right next to the bocci courts. 305-292-1008. Check out the website: keywestwildlifecenter.org and their facebook page.

ENDNOTE: With the exception of the annual grant from the City of Key West to finance the rescue and relocation of the Key West chickens, the entire annual budget of the Key West Wildlife Center comes from fundraisers and tax exempt donations from individual supporters. You may use PayPal to donate or mail checks to the Key West Wildlife Center, PO Box 2297, Key West FL 33045. A unique way you can support the KWWC is to participate in the Native Wildlife Sponsorship Program– which allows you to sponsor the rescue and care of specific species of birds. See the website or call for info. A major fundraiser for the KWWC is the For the Birds event, which happens annually in February or March.


  1. Well, it’s about time! I did wildlife rescue/rehab in the Keys in the early 2000’s, and the constant struggle was and continues to be getting people to realize that wildlife and the environment go hand in hand, and everything negative happening in that realm will eventually impact people. We worked on the huge issue of improperly discard trash in the environment where it disables and kills wildlife, but as anyone knows, the proplem persists. In my experience, over 90% of wildlife disabilities were caused by direct interactions with people and their property or degradation of the environment caused by humans. Yet no one really paid attention – as was the case with you. Now that you have seen the problems and the work of KWWC, work which is indicative of all wildlife rescue organizations, perhaps you can use your influence to convince people that they have a responsibility to ensure that their actions are not detrimental to wildlife. No more dropping cigarettes and trash just anywhere; no more feeding fileted fish carcassas to seabirds; no more dumping oil, toxins, and garbage into Keys waters; no more disregarding wildlife nurseries by running noisy jet skis and boats in close proximity, no more disrespecting wildlife for personal benefit or, in some cases, just because you feel like it – I’m sure you can look around and see even more deliberate actions which adversely affect wildlife. Welcome aboard, Dennis Reeves Cooper, to the real world of environmental problems needing persuasive public education in order to facilitate positive change and prevent the deaths of thousands of animals, including people.

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