‘Uber for animals:’ Brevard nonprofit helps transport injured wildlife to vet offices

Wild Florida Rescue fills a need by transporting injured wildlife to area veterinarians

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – There are any number of nonprofits that can help treat injured wildlife, but few are able to go out and get them.

That usually falls on a concerned animal lover.

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But Heather Pepe, this week’s Getting Results Award winner, came up with a solution to the problem.

“We joke that it’s like being an Uber,” said Pepe from behind the wheel of her Ford Transit. “An Uber for animals.”

She was heading north on A1A in Brevard County, passing condos and beach homes.

Pepe is the CEO of Wild Florida Rescue, a nonprofit dedicated to transporting injured, sick or orphaned wildlife to any number of treatment facilities in the area.

This was the first rescue of her day.

“So this call is for a large seabird on the beach,” Pepe said. “It appears to be injured.”

Seven years ago, Pepe was working at a wildlife hospital when she realized many of the people calling for help with an injured animal had no way of transporting them for treatment.

“There was a gap, a missing link in the chain,” Pepe recalled. “In my past life, I was a paramedic and a firefighter and something just clicked in my brain that we just need an ambulance. A wildlife ambulance.”

Last year, the nonprofit answered more than 7,500 calls for everything from butterflies (yes, butterflies) to bobcats.

Pepe and a couple dozen volunteers travel up and down Brevard County, seven days a week and sometimes throughout the night, in their specially outfitted ambulances.

“Here we’ve got our oxygen concentrator for animals to prevent respiratory distress. It helps them get to the hospital or veterinarian safely,” said Pepe, giving me a quick tour of the van. “We have our nets, we have IV fluids just like an ambulance.”

Pepe grabbed a large net and made her way across a beach access to search for the bird someone called in.

It didn’t take long to find a large Northern gannet sitting on the shore. She walked up and slowly placed a net over it.

“You’re OK, little buddy. It’s OK,” she said.

The bird barely moved.

“It’s what I expected,” Pepe said. “He’s probably weak and had been in the surf but he did make it to the sand.”

Pepe said the migratory bird was probably stranded, too weak to carry on with the flock.

“It’s a normal process but we’ve tipped the scales so much as humans that we try to tip them back a little bit and get as many as we can the help they need,” she added.

She put the bird in a cage in her ambulance and fed an oxygen tube through the grate before heading off to the Florida Wildlife Hospital in Palm Shores.

Pepe spends most of her days on the road.

“You have to like the road,” Pepe said. “I don’t love the road, but I do love the wildlife.”

Up the coast in Titusville, Sheila VanSickle returned home from working an overnight shift to find an unexpected guest.

“I noticed that he was sitting here by the mailbox,” said VanSickle, of the injured opossum seemingly frozen in the middle of her driveway. “I could tell there was something obviously very wrong.”

Wild Florida Rescue volunteer Alice Hayes pulled up and assessed the scene.

“He’s pretty bad,” Hayes determined. “I usually have to decide if he’s going to one of our rehabbers or the hospital. He’s going to the hospital.”

VanSickle looked on as Hayes picked up the animal and walked it over to the ambulance.

“I’m impressed. She came right out,” VanSickle said. “I didn’t now what to do. I would have probably sat there with him as long as I could. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Pepe said her service is as much about people as it is the animals.

“Just about everyone who calls is someone who cares about this animal in distress. So the person is also in crisis. And when they call, they’re talking to a dispatcher, just like they would call a police dispatcher. We let them know we’re coming we’re going to help you,” she said.

Wild Florida Rescue serves Brevard and Indian River counties. Its 24-hour emergency hotline is 321-821-7881.

The nonprofit relies on grants and donations to operate. You can learn more at its website.

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About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.