OCALA, Fla. – Mikayla Frierson packs her car full of gear and pulls out of her garage in suburban Ocala. She heads north on a two-lane highway under a canopy of oaks. It’s the start of her long day on the road.
“It’s all day driving,” she said. “There are days that I will drive for eight-plus hours and not even leave Marion County.”
Her Subaru Forester is filled with storage containers, towels, nets and thick leather gloves.
“This is a basic day of supplies,” she said, going through a list of things you’d likely find in a hardware store. “This is everything we use to go out and pick up wild animals that need our help.”
Frierson is founder of the nonprofit Rescuing Ocala Wildlife or R.O.W.
She spends her days crisscrossing Marion, Lake, Sumter and Citrus counties picking up injured wildlife and transporting them to appropriate rehab centers.
She started the public service a year ago after moving to the area from South Florida.
“Down south, when you find an animal that’s injured you can call up animal services or fish and wildlife and someone will come and pick them up,” Frierson said. “Here in Marion and the surrounding counties, there was nothing like that.”
Frierson is filling that need, rescuing more than 600 animals since she started a year ago.
This morning Frierson is headed to her first call of the day, an injured barred owl. On her way, she passes new housing developments and commercial buildings.
“I love Ocala. At this point, it’s still slow country living but it’s evolving so fast,” she said, acknowledging the evolution and growth is putting a strain on the wildlife and raising demand for her service.
Rileigh Amorginos found the owl taking shelter under a hedge by her house.
“There were a bunch of crows pecking at it,” she said, pointing to the large bird inside a storage container. “We picked him up and called FWC. They gave us her number.”
Frierson slides her hands into a pair of gloves and has a look at the bird’s wings. “All right buddy, let’s have a look,” she said with a calming voice. “He doesn’t look great to me, he looks dehydrated, he looks skinny.”
Frierson transfers the bird into one of her containers and walks him over to her car. “I don’t think it would hurt for him to go to rehab.”
Later that day, and miles later, she’ll drop him off at a Featherland Wild Birds Rehab Center in Wiersdale, one of the only rehab centers in the area.
Frierson says she often has to drive as far as Crystal River or Orlando to find help for some animals that need specific care.
“The rehabbers really don’t have time to go out all day,” Frierson said. “It’s a huge area to try to cover and get every animal where they need to go.”
The driving adds up. Frierson has put 40,000 miles on her car in less than a year.
Her parents, Sonya and Rob say Mikayla has always had compassion for animals.
“She’s always loved animals,” Rob Frierson said. “Ever since she was a tiny little thing. We’ve always rescued dogs, cats, birds and turtles. You name it, we’ve had it.”
“We’re so proud of her. She works so hard. She works around the clock,” Sonya Frierson added.
Frierson’s next stop is a gopher tortoise that was attacked by a dog.
“It’s just my passion for helping these animals that need it most,” she said as she drove past horse stables and miles of woodland. “Most of these animals are injured as a result of conflict from us. It’s the least we can do to get them back where they belong.”
Frierson finds the address and greets the homeowner who is carrying the tortoise in a box. “I’ll grab him and trade you,” she said, lifting the animal now fully retracted in its battered shell.
She kneels down to get a better look. “No bleeding, that’s good but you can see where the teeth chomped down there and there,” she said pointing to cracks and cuts on the corners of its shell.
Frierson packs him up in a ventilated storage box, slides it into the car and shuts the rear hatch. By the end of the day, he’ll be in the care of a veterinarian in Dunnellon.
“You do as much as you can every single day and at the end you look back and think, wow that was a lot,” she said, reflecting on what it takes to keep up with demand. “There’s a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I can’t imagine not doing this. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
You can contact Rescuing Ocala Wildlife at 352-234-6098.
Rescuing Ocala Wildlife is a 501c3 nonprofit. They do not receive any state or federal funding and are reliant on private donations to keep operating.
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