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Wildlife rehabbers may be in jeopardy with new rules from Florida Fish and Wildlife

A squirrel looking for something to eat. “People call them tree rats, but it's just so far from a reality,” said Becky Goodman, who cares for about 80 squirrels. (Samantha Sydeski/ WUFT News)
A squirrel looking for something to eat. “People call them tree rats, but it's just so far from a reality,” said Becky Goodman, who cares for about 80 squirrels. (Samantha Sydeski/ WUFT News)

Some people bring their kids or their dogs to work, but Becky Goodman snuck a squirrel into the office every day.

She works full time for a local tech company and owns a business building nesting boxes for squirrels to fund all 80 in her care. And she does all this while recovering from stage 4 cancer.

“He was a secret,” said Goodman, 49. “He was my secret squirrel that I hauled into work every single day.”

Like many animal rehabbers throughout Florida, she spends her free time, lunch breaks and weekends making sure that her chosen species, squirrels, get proper care. Wildlife rehab centers, like Goodman’s Secret Squirrel Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, take care of injured, sick or orphaned wildlife until they can be released into the wild.

But now, some wildlife rehabbers fear their treasured avocation may be shut down.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) plans to consider proposed changes to the rules governing wildlife rehabilitation at its next meeting, Dec. 5-6 in Orlando. Some wildlife rehabbers oppose the rule changes, saying they may force them to call it quits.

“The creation of rules makes it harder for us and doesn't impact the animals positively,” Goodman said.

Some of the rules that raised the most concerns allow unscheduled inspections of rehab facilities up to 12 months after a permit is no longer active.

A permittee may transfer wildlife to a different permitted wildlife rehabilitator for continuation of care and treatment. Rehabbers were upset about this because animals get comfortable in a particular center and then get moved out of nowhere.

Most wildlife rehab centers, including Goodman’s, are not paid, and income is based solely on donations.

After recent meetings between wildlife rehabbers and the FWC, some of the rules that were proposed in a draft were removed. The main concern taken out was the 72-hour window for most animals to receive an exam by a veterinarian.

Jonathan Howard, the director of the Ark Wildlife Care and Sanctuary Inc., said he doesn’t agree that FWC can inspect your business a year after you lose your license, and he believes this is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

“You don't think 13 months later they can't start again. I mean, where does it end,” he said. “A year, five years, 10 years? No, you have to trust people to do it right, and if they're not doing it right, they shouldn't be rehabbing.”

Howard started the Ark center in 2014, and it has grown into a facility that takes in 300 to 500 animals a year. The center's goal was to take in the worst and the most difficult cases from the other rehab centers. They accept any mammals, from moles to coyotes.

Howard said he will not be renewing his license, effective Jan. 1, after accusations of impropriety that were unfounded and because of the way he said FWC officers have treated him.

He applied for non-release approvals for four deer who needed amputations because bones were sticking out, and the FWC came and took all four of them to other sanctuaries. The FWC officers told the Ark it was out of line to apply for these requests. But, at the Ark center, Howard said he takes in the toughest cases that other rehabbers cannot handle.

The officers told him the animals should have been deemed non-releasable before they came into the centers. But Howard said officers are not trained to know if an animal is non-releasable or not.

“You have officers out there that are law enforcement officers carrying a badge, (and) a gun deciding whether an animal lives or dies and has no experience whatsoever with animals other than walking up and looking at them in a cage,” Howard said.

He said it's a losing battle — you just can’t win, and he doesn’t need the stress of dealing with it over and over again.

“I don't know, and that's just what's ripping my heart out,” he said. “You know there's not going to be anyone to take them.”

FWC officials declined to be interviewed.

But in a prepared statement the agency said “In some circumstances, wildlife may not be able to be released. In these cases, the FWC will attempt to find an appropriate home.”

University of Florida Veterinarian Professor Jim Wellehan works with a number of rehabilitators and takes in about 2,000 wildlife animals a year, and he said he sees the rules in a different light.

“There have been some incidents where people have overextended themselves to the point where there has been animal neglect,” he said. “So some further oversight is probably necessary.”

In 2013, Gainesville rehabilitator Leslie Straub lost her license and was prohibited from keeping wildlife on her property. Some of the violations she was charged with consisted of animal neglect and caging violations.

According to FWC, there are six wildlife rehab centers in Alachua County that are licensed.

Brian Boatright, 51, who owns the North Florida Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Lake City, started a petition to remove rules that could potentially shut down small wildlife rehab centers. It received more than 2,600 signatures in less than a month.

He said not all the rules were bad and that he personally likes the rule that makes becoming a rehabber a more hands-on experience through an apprenticeship with a licensed rehabber.

“I wish we had as many rehabilitators as we do like churches. Imagine that,” Boatright said.

Samantha is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing