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CROW celebrates golden anniversary
January 10, 2018

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Like many nonprofit organizations, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, formed out of a necessity after one individual wanted to help an injured bird, but had no place to take it.

The first injured animal was spotted by postal employee Shirley Walter, who moved to Sanibel from Fort Myers in 1967 to take over an office on the island.

While driving over the bridge, she spied numerous birds taking refuge on the Causeway Islands, which included a favorite perching area, the railing on the last bridge going to the island.

"I saw a pelican with a broken wing," Walter said.

As an animal lover, she decided to go to the Lighthouse where Florida Fish & Wildlife personnel were living. There, she spoke with the refuge manager, and asked what could be done for the injured pelican.

Walter learned there was nothing they could do, which resulted in her thinking "If you aren't going to do anything about it, I guess someone else has to."

Shortly after the pelican was seen, a couple of injured royal terns were also spotted on the causeway.

"I took them home. They had injured wings. They weren't really broken. They were injured and sprained. I didn't know anything about what I was doing, but I made a commitment to myself and the birds. I took those two birds home. That's initially how I got started. I had these two terns," Walter said.

The effort snowballed as more injured birds were found in need of assistance. Individuals began dropping off injured birds at her wildlife gallery "Fur, Feathers and Scales," which started the rescuing end of what later became CROW.

"I started going all over a good part of the state. It just grew. We picked up animals all the way to West Palm Beach because I became familiar with a lady over there," Walter said, adding they would travel there about once a week to feed birds of prey, or to bring some back to the area to release.

All of that was out of pocket and personally financed, she said.

"We had to incorporate," Walter said.

That happened in 1972.

The name of the organization came to be after she jotted down many ideas on a long legal pad in an effort to come up with an acronym of what they were doing. Crow was the bird of choice because "they are more like humans and do naughty things like humans."

"The first one I thought of was CROW, the Care and Rehabilitation of Wildlife," Walter said, which was later changed to the Clinic of the Rehabilitation of Wildlife when a full-time veterinarian was hired about 10 years ago. "By the time we incorporated no one came up with anything else."

In the early years, Walter said injured wildlife were taken to Dr. Phyllis Douglas, at Coral Vet. The first patient was a seagull.

"I was not a veterinarian. I did all my learning on the job," she said, laughing. "I kind of roped her into working with the animals with me. During that process she volunteered her time."

Walter said they did not have the capacity, like CROW does now, to take care of injured animals.

"The federal permits were covered under the Migratory Bird Act," she said. "Disposal of a lot of our permanent residents were donated, or transferred to other organizations like Disney and Animal Kingdom and other areas where they are on display. Those animals were unable to be returned to the wild."

Walter said she had three or four animals that she took into the schools, especially elementary schools, during the early years of CROW, to educate the children.

From 1967 to 1975 CROW operated from Walter's home where the backyard was used as a rehabilitation area. At one time she had approximately 50 pelicans taking refuge in the yard of her West Rocks Sanibel home.

"A lot of these were releasable. They released from my yard. I brought them in if they had minor injuries. They would hang out. My backyard had a 3 foot fence and I had a set of steps along the side and they would take off. Sometimes they would take off to the lot next to me that was mowed. They couldn't go very far. They would land over there and walk back into the yard because they knew where the food came from," said Walter, laughing again.

One of the pelicans she worked with was called Austin. She said the first time he flew, he followed her to her mother's home.

"Austin always came along. He would run a little bit and flap his wings. One day he took off, just accidentally I think. He went up about 15 feet and he kind of looked down and quit flapping and then said 'What the hell am I doing up here?'" Walter said.

Walter stopped operating out of her home in 1975 and sent many of the birds to different places to get the proper care. She said the operation existed in name only at Adelaide Cherbonnier's Captiva home while negotiations took place for an official site.

CROW was given 10 acres of the Sawbridge tract along Sanibel Captiva Road, where it still exists today. In 1981, CROW received city approval and the wildlife clinic became operational with a $35,000 mortgage to build the facility.

"(Hurricane) Charley devastated the headquarters and, fortunately, there was little damage done at the hospital itself," Walter said, adding that there was vegetation down, but none of the animals were hurt.

She said when the student quarters were built, Mariner, up at South Seas, donated the student quarters at CROW.

"They brought them down, set them up. They donated them," Walter said.

Now, 50 years later, she is very happy with how much CROW has grown.

Walter said she wanted the organization to be state-of-the-art with a plethora of information exchanged with other people.

"You have to start with the kids," she said of why she went to the schools. "I always went to the schools."

CROW put together a 50th anniversary committee which has been working hard planning the events for the 2018 celebration since May.

"The really neat thing is we have been able to pull together a group of CROW volunteers from across the years. Shirley is apart of that. We also have some of the folks that are actually coming to the meetings that worked with Shirley in the olden days of CROW and various other people who have volunteered for CROW throughout the years," CROW Executive Director Linda Estep said. "It's nice to see the perspective that we get. We always get to hear about CROW in the early days and CROW now in the 2000s decade and how far we have come. It's really nice to see that the ones who worked very hard for CROW are still with us."

Looking ahead, Estep said they will continue to do what their mission states - take care of wildlife and return them to their "homes" in Southwest Florida.

Their educational component will also continue to be a focal point while opening their doors to showcase what they are doing on a daily basis.

When the Visitor & Education Center opened in 2009, Estep said it had state-of-the-art exhibits.

"Since 2009 the whole world has changed towards technology, and interactive kinds of activities," she said. "We really felt that we needed to update things that were in there to make them more user friendly to attract the younger folks who really are our future."

Estep said with the younger crowd, they can educate the importance of saving wildlife, which in turn creates better stewards of wildlife at an earlier age.

"That was our goal and I think we are achieving it when I walk in there and see the smiling faces," she said of the Visitor & Education Center. "I see that they get it and they know what to do and that is really heartwarming to me."

Estep said their end goal is being able to educate all people on what to do to help preserve wildlife.

"That's quite a goal, but if we keep working at it day-by-day, a little at a time, we will some day reach that goal," she said.

With CROW celebrating its 50th year, the Sanibel City Council provided the organization with a proclamation, which Estep said kicked off the year long celebration of the golden milestone.

"That's a long time for a nonprofit to really be able to start small and grow into what we are today," she said.

The festivities will begin on Sunday, Jan. 14, with an Open House from 1 to 4 p.m. The Visitor & Education Center, and gift shop will be open to the public during the open house with abbreviated tours of the hospital area.

Estep said attendees will have the opportunity to see where the patients are admitted, treated, as well as the hospital and rehab area. The short tour also will include guest appearances from CROW's animal ambassadors.

The Chamber After Hours will follow from 5 to 7 p.m. on Jan. 22. She said the gathering will enable them to share some information about CROW.

On March 7, Dr. Heather Barron, CROW hospital director, will host an event at the Sanibel Community House with the active director of Audubon Florida. Estep said the talk will most likely revolve around water conservation.

On March 23, Southern Comfort, an annual event, will take place at the Community House, complete with a dinner and live auction.

This year the Fourth of July parade will feature CROW as its grand marshal.

The next big event, the CROW Golf Classic, will be held on Oct. 13, at the Sanctuary Golf Club, followed by the Taste of the Islands in November, tentatively set for Nov. 11.

The events will also include two off-island gatherings due to the majority of the patients coming from other areas of Lee County.

"We have a lot of people that support CROW from greater Lee County," Estep said.

The first event is scheduled at The Forrest Country Club on Jan. 31, a member invitation affair.

The second off-island event, a Walk on the Wildside, will be held at Lakes Regional Park on Aug. 25. Estep said they will have special exhibits throughout the park, special trails participants will follow to learn key information about what CROW does and how people can help wildlife.

"We are looking forward to having that partnership," she said.

A year end open house celebration will wrap up the 50th anniversary celebration at the Visitor & Education Center.

"It will be the beginning of December, we just don't have the date finalized yet," Estep said. "We will also have some smaller events within the Visitor & Education Center."

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