Sanibel's 'CROW is not going anywhere' despite Hurricane Ian damage

Robyn George
Fort Myers News-Press
“CROW will be going on 55 years next year, so we are not going anywhere," said Executive Director Alison Hussey. "We are a fixture in Lee County."

When Hurricane Ian was heading toward Southwest Florida, Alison Hussey had a plan.

“I grew up in Southwest Florida and I take storms very seriously,” said the executive director of the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) on Sanibel. “We had been watching this one for quite some time. As with any storm that is approaching, we kind of start our preparations.”

That’s when the elaborate plan kicked in. It’s put in place at the beginning of the season according to Hussey, and includes making sure students, staff and the clinic's patients are safe. Not an easy task when more than 150 animals are involved.

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“We sped up the timeline,” Hussey said. Originally aiming for a noon departure on Tuesday, Sept. 27, Hussey was the last one of her crew to leave at 10:30 a.m.

“We took 160-plus animals off the island with us,” said the former attorney for the Pavese Law Firm in Fort Myers for more than 20 years. “We were very blessed we were able to evacuate everyone.”

The thought was that they would return to the island on Saturday, a few days after the hurricane cleared through the area. Hurricane Ian damaged the bridge to Sanibel. The only way to the island is by boat or helicopter.

More than 160 animals were evacuated from Sanibel by CROW. Some went to hotel rooms with staff and students.

“So initially those animals went home with us,” said Hussey. “They went to hotel rooms with our staff and students. They went home with various staff members.”

But it soon became clear there was not going to be a quick return to Sanibel. So the burrowing owls, turtles, gopher tortoises, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, the great horned owl ambassador and many more animals needed places to go.

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“Those were not long-term solutions,” Hussey said of the hotels and homes. “And since we weren’t able to return to the island as we planned, we sent them to various facilities. Whether it was The Conservancy (in Naples), Florida Wildlife Center, Pelican Harbor (Seabird Station) or Busch Gardens, all kinds of folks are taking animals for us in the interim.”

The furthest a CROW patient was transported was to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier.

“There are success stories,” said Hussey. “A frigatebird was released a few days after being transferred. We were able to rescue these animals. They were transferred to another facility which was then able to finish the rehabilitation and release them after the storm.

Water surrounds CROW's Visitor Education Center on Friday, Sept. 30.

“Our staff is so sacrificing of themselves to make sure these animals were taken care of. We are really pleased everything went according to plan. Except for Ian.”

While Hussey had not been out to Sanibel since the hurricane, some of her staff members went out there on Oct. 6. The doctors retrieved medicine, syringe pumps and equipment that can be used offsite. They also checked on the buildings — the Visitor Education Center, the clinic and student housing — which did sustain damage.

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“But they are still standing,” said Hussey. “And I’m pleased to report that water did not get into the upper levels and that is fantastic.

“We are just hoping by the time we get out there, we are able to do as much as we can to make sure that the mold intrusion and all the wonderful things that come from living in Southwest Florida don’t take over.”

CROW's large flight enclosure was toppled by Hurricane Ian.

Even without their Sanibel location, Hussey wants to make something perfectly clear.

“Crow still exists,” she said. “Crow is not going anywhere. We just have to pivot a little bit and figure out how we can best serve our mission in the interim while we figure out logistically where that’s going to be.

“We are continuing — even though we are not in our building — to triage wildlife, respond to rescues if we can and then transfer them to our wonderful partners throughout Florida who are stepping up right now to cover for us.”

A temporary off-island site is in the works. The Animal Refuge Center (ARC) in North Fort Myers reached out to CROW to offer them space .

“We took 160-plus animals off the island with us,” said CROW Executive Director Alison Hussey. “We were very blessed we were able to evacuate everyone.”

“We are working toward figuring out how that layout is going to help us best take care of our patients,” said Hussey. “We are still hammering out the details. You want to be a good partner. I am thrilled.”

As far as the wildlife that is on the island now, Hussey said she has heard through partners with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation that animals seem to be faring well. Any injured animals are being transported and triaged to BluePearl in Fort Myers at this time and are being sent out from there.

And as far as the rumors that alligators and snakes are all over the island?

“I heard there is a gator in the post office,” said Hussey. “That is so Sanibel! I actually did hear that from one of the postal workers so that could actually be a valid story.”

Hussey said that while it’s going to be a long road to get back to the island and to get back to the CROW we know and love, she is committed to doing just that.

CROW evacuated its facility on Sanibel before Hurricane Ian approached. More than 160 animals found temporary shelter.

“We are so, so blessed because so many people have reached out to us,” she said. “They want to help whether it’s sending funding or offering space. The outpouring has been really amazing and uplifting.

“Crow will be going on 55 years next year, so we are not going anywhere. We are a fixture in Lee County. We will continue to save wildlife locally and we can’t wait to get back to work.”

How to help

Follow the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) on social media. Go to crowclinic.org to donate.