Central Florida refuge celebrates 30 years of helping wildlife

Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge promotes rehabilitation, education

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – Thirty years ago, a Central Florida woman's dream was to have a place where rescued wildlife could be treated and nurtured back into their habitat. 

Today, that dream continues to be fulfilled in Osceola County, coupled with education.

"Teaching people how to live and understand Florida wildlife is crucial," Kelly Verduin said.

She's been working with wildlife animals for about 16 years at the Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge.

"Anything from squirrels to possums, raccoons, your common backyard wildlife," Verduin, an administrative manager, said. "Some are exotic that we've housed from other sanctuaries and live with us permanently now, and some were perhaps initially a patient that came in that we were treating but unfortunately wasn't able to be returned."

The nonprofit organization started three decades ago out of a Central Florida woman's love for animals.

"This literally started in the backyard of Carmen Shaw, who is our founder of Back to Nature. She grew up even doing this with her father of just finding wildlife and helping it until they could put it back out," Verduin said.

Since then, the refuge has been providing a safe haven for about 3,000 animals each year.

"Most of the time, they've been either attacked by a domestic animal or they've been hit by a car," Verduin said. 

There are currently 19 species and 22 enclosures housing everthing from bobcats to tortoises to an emu and even a few laid-back lemurs. 

The facility operates solely on donations and with help from volunteers. 

Among the permanent residents is 12-year-old Nigel, a sherman fox squirrel with an amputated paw.

"They are a Florida native species of special concern, which is one above being listed as threatened. Nigel came to us in 2007, when he was found unconscious in the Lake Mary area after being electrocuted by a transformer box," Verduin said.

Nigel has surpassed his lifetime expectations. 

"Every day, these animals have to be tended to, not just feeding them and cleaning them, they also have to be enriched. Their lives are in an enclosure. They do have impairments, they have special needs. They do get different forms of enrichment so every day they have a different activity that's created for them," Verduin said.

The organization is only getting busier. Every day, someone walks in with an injured or abandoned animal.

"With the growing developments around us, the population is continuously growing. The majority of people that are coming from places elsewhere that are not familiar with Florida, it's just so important to have a resource like this," Verduin said.

On Saturday, there will be a big celebration for the organization's 30th anniversary. The event takes places from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

To learn more about how you can volunteer or make a donation, click here or email info@btnwildlife.org. 

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