BRADENTON BEACH — Not many people have African tortoises wandering around their front yard, but then, not many people are like Gail and Ed Straight, whose home and wildlife rescue center co-exist on the same leafy property.
The couple, with 23 years of experience caring for injured wildlife, are serving as liaisons for Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc. Tri-State has been hired by BP to manage wildlife rescue and rehabilitation for Florida in the event oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well reaches its shores.
“I’ve been through Tri-State training,” Gail Straight said as the phone rang constantly with people wanting to volunteer. “When they have something going on down here, they call me.”
Volunteers from the general public must follow a different protocol than those with professional credentials, she said.
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“As far as I have been told, unless you are actually put on the BP schedule, you are not allowed to touch anything,” she added.
“They’re going to have certain people out there, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and BP are going to be telling who can go out on the beaches or wherever they’re going.”
She had to pass a 20-question test, and she has had HazMat training.
“Rescue work’s only for people who are rehabilitators, people who have handled these animals,” Straight said. “Great blue herons can poke your eyes out if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
If necessary, Tri-State would work with trained wildlife rehabilitators with the proper migratory bird permits, said Heidi Stout, executive director at Tri-State, based in Newark, Del.
Stout, who said she has enjoyed a long working relationship with the Straights, noted that officials have assembled a list of those in Florida with appropriate credentials, and either have contacted them or will be contacting them to see if they’re available should the need arise.
There are special considerations when wildlife is exposed to oil, especially since substances from the spill can be dangerous to both humans and animals, said Wendy Fox, executive director of Miami’s Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, and president of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
She said she is confident that Tri-State would be able to handle whatever happens in Florida.
“Absolutely,” she said. “They have done this all over the world, that’s why they were founded.”
At a St. Pete Beach meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last week, representatives of various wildlife, conservation and environmental groups complained that they felt they weren’t getting enough information and were unsure what their roles might be.
Susan McMillan, involved for years with the local Sierra Club, addressed the commission, contending that BP’s efforts to contain the spill were inadequate.
“People in my circle, including me, want to know what we can do to help,” she said in an interview. “I called and e-mailed the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, but nobody’s really said, ‘Here’s what to do, show up for a training or a meeting.’
“How should we apply? I want somebody to say, ‘Tuesday night at 8 p.m.’ for training or for informing citizens how they can protect their local waters,” she said. “I’m getting the sense from snippets I’m reading they don’t want the public involved.”
Some training has become available. Tampa Bay Watch, a St. Petersburg-area nonprofit dedicated to protection and restoration of wetlands and marine environments, has signed up almost 300 volunteers to help with the spill, according to Rachel Arndt, communications coordinator.
The group held a classroom session last week, along with a hands-on lesson focusing on deploying an anti-pollution boom in Hillsborough County’s lush Cockroach Bay.
But, Arndt emphasized, if oil washes ashore, her group will not do anything until directed by state and federal officials overseeing handling of the spill.
In Manatee County, volunteers are contacting the Straights’ wildlife rescue center, Wildlife Inc. Education & Rehabilitation Center, a non-profit organization that treats birds, mammals and reptiles.
Its mission is to rehabilitate injured and orphaned creatures and return them to the wild if possible. The couple figure they’ve cared for at least 60,000 animals over the years.
In their yard is a virtual zoo of refugees, including owls, raccoons, parrots, cats and ducks.
In neat piles are everything needed to care for their charges, including medicines, towels and bandages, mountains of food, microscope and washing areas. The Straights and those who volunteer at the center also teach wildlife and environmental awareness at local schools.
Local wildlife organizations should not ask for donations to care for wildlife if the Gulf spill damages Florida, because BP would pay for everything, Straight warned.
“It’s unethical,” she said.
But she understands why people want to give: “People want to feel like they’re doing something.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.