story by Brittany Shepard | photos by Jessica Graña
In 1988, wildlife rehabilitation pioneer Betsy Knight founded Big Bend Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc. (BBWS) in Blountstown, Florida. Her commitment to advocate for the Florida Black Bear made BBWS the first sanctuary in the state that was given permission to rehabilitate and release the bears back to the wild.
In 2006, John and Terry Morse began volunteering at BBWS, and Knight began to mentor and train the couple. She encouraged them to take over the sanctuary, but it wasn’t until her death in 2012 that the Morses took on the responsibility of managing BBWS.
John and Terry then made the decision to move BBWS to Alabama because there was a great need for rehabilitators in the state.
“The first year (2012), we took in 150 animals and rehabilitated them at our home, and then in 2013 we had the sanctuary up and running and took in over 400 animals,” said Terry. “Now, BBWS serves over a thousand animals each year, so there was obviously a big need for BBWS to come to the Wiregrass area.”
Currently, BBWS is the only facility in Alabama with permits to take in all native wildlife species including birds, mammals and reptiles. It is also the one of only five facilities in the state allowed to take in Rabies Vector Species (raccoons, bats, skunks, fox and coyotes).
John and Terry manage BBWS with the financial and volunteer support of the community. Here, they tell us more about what the organization does and how our readers can be involved.
What is the vision and mission of Big Bend Wildlife Sanctuary?
BBWS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the care of orphaned, sick, abandoned and injured wildlife and to the education of people regarding wildlife. We believe that wildlife deserves a second chance to be free and that we must educate the public on living cohesively with their wild neighbors.
What services does the organization provide?
BBWS is a 501.c.3 non-profit organization that takes in orphaned and injured wildlife. BBWS helps them to get healthy and strong enough to be able to survive when released back to the wild.
In your opinion, why is it important to provide the services of BBWS?
Over 75 percent of the animals that BBWS admits are there because of humans in some way. They are sometimes shot by bullets or arrows and left to die slowly, attacked by our domestic pets, inhumanely trapped, run over or hit by vehicles by accident and sometimes deliberately, just because someone doesn’t like them. Whatever the reason, they deserve a second chance to survive and be free once again.
In what ways does BBWS work to educate the community?
BBWS provides education programs teaching the public about our native wildlife and how they can help ensure their survival. We also debunk the old myths that people still believe in. We provide education programs to schools, communities and organization events. We bring our education animals to teach the public about certain species. We get to tell their stories as to how they became education animals and why they are considered non-releasable. We teach the public what they should do when they find an animal that may need help. We explain how some situations are a natural event for some species and they should be left alone and don’t need intervention.
We also do tours at the sanctuary where the public can actually see some wildlife that are currently in rehabilitation.
In its history, what impact has BBWS had on animals in the community?
BBWS has cared for and saved thousands of animals that would otherwise have died. Many people drive by dead animals on the road all the time and don’t give it a second look. But there are also those that stop to make sure the animal doesn’t need help. The key here is they may not be dead and they might need human intervention to help them. Many animals lie dying on the side of the road because they are too injured to walk away from it. They are often hit again or at a minimum left to die a slow death from injuries and starvation. BBWS and other rehabilitators feel that isn’t right and has set out on a mission to provide them a safe place to heal.
While in Florida, BBWS was the first sanctuary allowed to take in the Florida Black Bear for rehabilitation with the plan to release back to the wild. It was once thought that this couldn’t be done, but BBWS was successful and took in 45 bears (injured juveniles and adults or orphaned cubs) over the years and rehabilitated them until they were ready for release. Out of those 45 bears, only two had to be recaptured and placed in a permanent facility because they got too close to humans. We hope to develop the same program here in Alabama. We don’t have many bears in southern Alabama, but since their numbers have increased in Florida, they are looking for more territory to the north and are moving into Alabama and Georgia.
The statistics are about 50 percent survival rate among the animals brought into wildlife rehabilitation facilities. At BBWS we have had over 75 percent survival rate and higher some years.
Funding and dedicated volunteers are our biggest draw back. There are no paid positions at BBWS, and every penny goes back into the care of the animals. We do not receive any funding from the State or Federal Governments. It is difficult to get grants because we are such a small organization, and everything we have gotten so far is from private donors and a few community organizations. We really do need more donations to help pay our bills, purchase food and supplies, cover veterinary expenses and build more enclosures. We also need more dedicated volunteers to keep the organization going because each year we take in more and more animals. We really need the community’s help.
We provide an orientation and training session every month for new volunteers who want to volunteer at BBWS.
Where can our readers go for more information?