When a hurricane roars through his town in Christmas, Fla., Ron Hardee braces for the onslaught.
It's not the winds and rain he needs to prepare for; his home is designed to handle a storm. It's the flood of wildlife that people bring to his center's door that becomes overwhelming. From baby squirrels to deer to armadillos, animals can be forced out of their homes and into the cold by a hurricane's high winds and rain or roughed up and injured by flying debris.
"Most wildlife go with the flow, but that doesn't mean a hurricane isn't devastating for them too," said Hardee, who founded and runs the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Central Florida with his wife, Carol. "We just focus on the survivors — the weak don't make it."
Among the most affected, Hardee says, are baby squirrels. After Hurricane Charley, Hardee and his wife took in some 500 baby gray squirrels. When Hurricane Frances blew through a few weeks later, they found themselves foster parents of another 250 baby squirrels as people kept finding the orphaned animals and bringing them to the center's door.
Part of the squirrels' misfortune lies in the fact that most squirrel species have young around the peak of hurricane season — in late August and early September. Since the animals usually nest in trees, their homes are vulnerable to the strong winds of a hurricane. When trees are downed, the young squirrels are left homeless, shivering in the cold and separated from their parents.
What Baby Squirrels Want
What to do with 750 orphaned squirrels? In fact, Carol Hardee has written a manual on how to care for the infants. She and her husband even hold regular courses on the method to ensure they have enough volunteers who can chip in after a storm.
Under the Hardees' method, baby squirrels are hand-fed puppy formula, sometimes mixed with cream, through oral syringes. Once they reach eight weeks in age, the babies eat a diet of broccoli, other vegetables and nuts and are moved to an outside cage with other orphaned youngsters. Finally, after two months, the Hardees release them into tree-rich habitats.
Some may argue it's not worth the effort to save the animal, which is, after all, a kind of rodent. But the Hardees counter that the animals play an important role by burying acorns and other nuts at just the right depth, which helps new trees grow.
While baby squirrels make up most of the Hardees' post-storm refugees, plenty of other animals are left vulnerable by the storms. Critters, such as armadillos, foxes and minks, that burrow in the ground can be ousted by the storms as driving rains raise water levels and flood their burrows. Once outside their havens, they can wander into roadways and be injured or killed by cars.
And while most birds' young are old enough to fend for themselves by the time hurricane season rolls around, doves have young year-round, and so their chicks are can be stranded by the bad weather. Hardee was caring for more than a dozen baby and juvenile doves just after Hurricane Frances.
Even young birds that are nearly adults can be thrown off by hurricanes. Owls, hawks and water birds have been brought to the Hardees' clinic after being injured in strong winds or blown from their flock and then left alone and vulnerable. While the Hardees care for some of the injured birds, they also elicit the help of nearby veterinarians and the Audubon Center.