By John Mullen with Photos by Shelley Patterson/C-Shelz Photography.
September 20, 2019 – Orange Beach, AL – (OBA) – Since 2016 the Orange Beach Wildlife Center and Management Program has been rehabbing and taking in native injured or exhausted critters, rehabbing those they can and returning them to the wild.

“Our goal is to work with wildlife and get it back into the wild,” Coastal Programs Coordinator Melissa Vinson said. “We are permitted to rehab all native wildlife expect deer. This includes but is not limited to: raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, mammals excluding deer but including (rabies vector species) mammals and reptiles.”

But that’s not always the case and the center keeps some of the critters as species ambassadors for demonstrations and presentations.

“Sometimes there are animals that for one reason or another they can’t be released back into the wild,” Vinson said. “We have some of those animals and we use them for education, outreach and things like that.”

The center has come a long way since its start in former firefighter Wade Stevens’ garage. He is now with the Coastal Resources Department as a Coastal Programs Manager.

“I’ve done wildlife on and off – mostly on – since about 1999. That was when we really got it kicked off and it’s gone back and forth through some different variations,” Stevens said. “I rehabbed many animals in my garage at home before there was anything official.”

Back in those early days the police and fire department were both called out on emergencies and it seemed the wildlife calls just fell to firefighters.

“It really doesn’t matter what the incident is somebody’s got to deal with it,” Stevens said. “Law enforcement typically dealt with criminal activities and had other responsibilities and the fire department would tend to get the animal calls.”
 
He and interested firefighters began handling marine mammal and sea turtle rescues and rehabs and eventually there were stranding networks and the current Share the Beach programs were created.

“Once that was covered I shifted focus to birds and mammals,” Stevens said. “We started over the years working on how we were going to deal with those types of calls. The goal was to do it the right way. We set out with a goal to develop a state and federally licensed and permitted wildlife rehabilitation facility and that’s where we are today.” It took about a year of rehabbing the Walker home and building holding
enclosures around it before the center was ready for animals.

“In 2015 we started on the house and in 2016 we opened, it became functional and we started using it,” Stevens said. “We did a do-it-yourself remodel with me and a couple of other folks doing most of the labor to get it all ready.” Brandon Ard from the Police Department and several staff from Public Works and Coastal Resources Department were instrumental in getting it done.

THE CENTER TODAY
OBWildlife Pens
Vinson started out as a volunteer for the center when it moved to the Walker house at the city’s recreation campus.

“I stalked Wade until he eventually hired me,” she said with a laugh.

She brings an inquisitive nature with her to the job especially when it comes to animals. And, even though it was a hatchling alligator used for education, she had to find out.

“The first one that we had – I’m just a very curious person – and I stuck my finger in its mouth,” Vinson said. “I knew it would bite but I wanted to see ‘how bad does it hurt?’ It hurts.”
 
The center is home to a menagerie of animals from the little gator named by Facebook fans as Perdido to a small skunk named Luna Belle, Jolene the bobcat and Izzy the otter. The center also has several resident snakes, turtles, J.B. the great-horned owl and a scarlet macaw named Walter.

She uses some of the resident animals for Wildlife Wednesday demonstrations during the summer at Big Al’s Parkour Park in the Backcountry Trail near the Orange Beach Sportsplex.

But the real work of the center is rehabilitating wildlife that has been injured or orphaned.

The resident skunk, bobcat and otter were all failed attempts at people trying to make pets out of them. They became too tame for the wild but the owners didn’t want them anymore so the center took them in. The skunk was brought to the center because it was ill and never fully recovered.

“She couldn’t use her back legs, she was twitchy, her head was turning,” Vinson said of Luna Belle. “She was acting suspicious and we were worried she had a neurological disease. And we were very concerned about rabies which has no cure.

“We monitored her for a week and changed her diet drastically and she gained a lot of weight in the first three weeks we had her. They were giving her the wrong diet and that’s why wildlife shouldn’t be kept as pets. We use her as an educational ambassador and she’s goes out to programs with us.”

Animals rehabbed at the center have included pelicans and great blue herons, raising and releasing orphaned squirrels, several raptors including owls and osprey, armadillos among dozens of other species seen by the center.

Recently, cages for Jolene the bobcat and Izzy the otter were upgraded with Izzy getting a bigger water area and a slide into the water.
OBWildlife Otter
Having bobcats as pets is illegal in Alabama but Jolene was purchased legally from a breeder in Tennessee. When the owner brought it to a vet in Alabama for vaccinations it was confiscated. 
 
“It was confiscated and the state called us and asked if we could accept a bobcat,” Vinson said. “We said absolutely. Because she was born and raised in captivity, she’s non-releasable. She looks like a cat, acts like a cat but she’s still a bobcat.”

Someone in Mobile County thought it would be a good idea to take in a juvenile otter after a flood on the Dog River.

“Someone with really good intentions decided to raise her much like many of our animals,” Vinson said. “They had her like four to six weeks during a very young phase of her life so she really got used to people. She was in their bathroom in their house and she thought ‘I’m a human or y’all are all funny looking otters.’”

The goal was to try and get Izzy rehabbed and released but she was too domesticated by the time she reached the Orange Beach center.

“They did bring her to us in hopes that we would be able to wild her up,” Vinson said. “After a couple of weeks evaluation, we said no. She’s going to be swimming up to people for food and she’s not going to know how to act like an otter.”

One of the most important parts of making the center successful are college interns. Currently most are from the southern part of the U.S. but, we have had interns from 10 states including as far away as New Jersey, Maryland and Michigan. Citizen volunteers also give time to help with the animals there.

“They are only given a small monthly stipend plus housing,” Vinson said. “My job posting says ‘are you ready to be overworked and underpaid?’ That’s literally what they are doing.”

They are also a vital part of the outreach to local schools where interns do more than just do animal demonstrations, Vinson said.

“We do a lot of stuff with the schools,” she said. “Last year we went to Orange Beach Elementary School and we did a program for every single class so we saw every single student at the elementary school. We’re in talks with the middle school and the high school for future programming and we hope to do that again.
“We have curriculum-based programs for them and it’s kind of unique. Each grade got something different. It wasn’t always just about the animals. For one grade we were teaching the senses and using our different animals and talking about their senses. Another grade was life cycles. They all saw kind of a different group and a different message.”

Next week: The center is getting a new home in the near future.
“This is an interim facility and our plans are to move to a new 10-acre facility with some Restore Act funding,” Stevens said.