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.
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.
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."