Couple Care for Wildlife After Hurricanes

One might think that water-dwelling animals like fish would be fine during large storms. But Florida Fish and Wildlife reported that about 50,000 bass, tilapia and other freshwater species died in a lake in Florida's Seminole County following Hurricane Charley. It's uncertain if the fish were affected when a live power line fell into the water, which could have sent out a lethal electric shock, or if lowered oxygen levels in the water from the torrential rains may have suffocated the animals. Heavy rains followed by sunshine can cause algae to flourish, and the algae consume oxygen in the water.

Pets on the Loose

Meanwhile, wildlife on land feel the sting when domesticated creatures are suddenly let loose by storms.

Families who are forced to flee their homes often have the added stress of leaving their pets behind since organizations like the Red Cross cannot accept animals in their shelters. There are a number of groups set up to help the abandoned animals, including the Humane Society and a California-based group called Noah's Wish. Still, as homes are damaged, cats and dogs can be left on the street and, in turn, prey on wildlife.

Stranded cats prey on birds and rodents while abandoned dogs have been known to attack opossums and turtles that have been injured or left vulnerable by storms. More exotic pets, such as monkeys, poisonous snakes and even lions, present an even bigger problem when their pens are ripped open by hurricanes.

Todd Hardwick of Pesky Critters, a trapping business in Florida's Miami-Dade County, knows from experience what havoc a hurricane can bring. He volunteers his services in the wake of large storms and was busiest following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"For a while I felt like south Florida had been turned into an open-air zoo," he said. "We had tigers, lions and thousands of monkeys wandering around the state."

Hardwick, who was responsible for sedating and capturing most of the wandering monkeys in his area, recalls seeing people shoot the monkeys, fearing they might be infected with AIDS or other infectious diseases. Shooting them is unnecessary, he says, but tranquilizer darts are often key. Before every hurricane, he and his partner make sure they stock up on the darts to be ready for action.

"When these animals are set loose after a storm, they're dazed and confused — and absolutely dangerous," said Hardwick, who remembers finding an escaped python where a neighbor's cat had been lying.

"It was curled up where the cat had been and it had a huge lump in its stomach," he said.

Altered Habitats

If never recaptured, the exotic animals can escape into the wild and flourish in Florida's warm climate. Parakeets that have escaped or been released into the wild have thrived in south Florida and created power disruptions by nesting on power lines and high-voltage substations.

Released pet snakes, including pythons and boas, are likely pushing out native snakes, says Hardwick. And John West, a lieutenant in the wildlife investigations division of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, reports that macaque and capuchin monkeys, parrots and cockatiels and all kinds of lizards have been at large in Florida's wild since Hurricane Andrew struck 12 years ago. Once in the wild, the animals can push out less aggressive, native animals.

Of course, some native animals do just fine, even thrive amid the chaos of a hurricane. Scavengers like raccoons, for example, are very opportunistic and can find a bevy of food in the ruins of toppled buildings and garbage cans.

"They'll find something like a big woodpile and sit out the storm," said Ron Hardee. "Then they can eat anything. They're good survivors."

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