First Lady of CROW
It all began in 1967, with the Sanibel Causeway, a pelican, and a broken wing.
“I crossed the causeway [one day],” says Shirley Walter, then serving as Sanibel’s postmaster. “I saw a pelican with a broken wing on the railing of the causeway, and so I went to the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife office, which was at the lighthouse at that time.”
With the opening of the causeway in 1963, a growing number of injured birds began coming across Sanibel Island’s doorstep. But Walter was frustrated to find that Fish and Wildlife staff could not help her and the wounded pelican. So later, when she rescued two royal terns that had been hit by cars on the causeway, Care and Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW, was born.
Above: Shirley Walter’s first patient was a pelican with a broken wing, and pelicans continue to constitute much of CROW’s patient base.
Forty years later, CROW’s name has evolved to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc. And it celebrated its four decades of work with the opening of its new Healing Winds Visitor Education Center and wildlife hospital in January of 2009. Walter, who started CROW at her own home in Sanibel’s West Rocks subdivision, was on hand to observe how far her humble mission had come.
“I operated out of my back yard to about 1975,” she says. “I was next to the slough; I was on the back side of it. The water table was close to the surface, so I dug a pond in my yard for my pelicans….I had probably at one time about forty-some pelicans.
“My yard had a three-foot fence around it, and they would release themselves,” she continues. “I think they call it now ‘soft release.’ We kind of let them release themselves.” She laughs, signaling that you probably wouldn’t be able to get away with such an operation these days on Sanibel.
While running one of the first wildlife rehabilitation facilities in the state of Florida, Walter had to more or less make it up as she went along, with the valued assistance of veterinarian Phyllis Douglass. Walter’s only training for operating the clinic was a love of animals stemming from her childhood years.
Growing up on a small farm, Walter lived with everything from dogs and cats to pigs, chickens, and cows. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve always had animals,” she says. “I’ve always been into animals.”
So groundbreaking was Walter’s venture that the state of Florida did not even have a permitting process in place for the possession of migratory birds at the time. She operated under letters of recommendation from various island bird and wildlife protection agencies.
But as word of CROW spread, Walter had to make some changes to deal with increased demand for her services. “Needless to say, the more people hear of you, the more patients come,” she says. “It wasn’t long before there was a need to incorporate as a nonprofit in order to accept donations for which the donors could receive tax credit.”
Above: Shirley Walter interacting with CROW supporters.
Walter also worked to share with the community the value of its local wildlife population and how humans and animals needed to live together. “When Shirley started CROW, the mission was about rehabilitation, rescue, and release back into the wild,” says Dr. PJ Deitschel, CROW’s current clinic director and veterinarian. “And inherent in that mission was also education.”
“I had some critters I took to the schools,” Walter explains. She felt that an exchange of information was important, both for the local community and for her own education.
Over the years, Walter’s menagerie grew. “I would have turtles and hawks, and crows and sea gulls, and just all manner of critters there,” Walter remembers. She also became involved in rescuing alligators and would pick up animals from all over the state. In just two years, she logged eighty thousand miles on her car’s odometer.
Eventually, CROW outgrew its backyard operation. After Sanibel incorporated in 1974 and neighbors began complaining, Walter had to somewhat reinvent the organization. Adelaide “Jabber” Cherbonnier, a Captiva Island winter resident, welcomed the wildlife hospital to her guest home and grounds. She accepted the position of temporary president, and though she thought she was providing temporary housing for CROW, the organization remained at her Captiva home for seven years.
In 1982, CROW moved to its current location on Sanibel-Captiva Road. Walter, who stepped down from her duties at CROW in 1976, today lives in the Ocala, Florida, area but keeps abreast of CROW goings-on.
A couple of years ago, CROW began a capital campaign to build new facilities. “We had outgrown the old facility,” explains Deitschel. “When this building was built 25 years ago, they were doing about five hundred patients a year. We currently do over four thousand animals a year, so that’s a huge, huge growth.”
Above: WGCU-TV producer Chelle Walton and videographer Tim Kenney interviewed Shirley Walton in January 2009 at opening of the new CROW facilities.
“I feel very insignificant actually,” says Walter. “Because what this organization has become is just fantastic. These new buildings and new hospital, this ed[ucation] center is absolutely magnificent. I’m more than proud. It’s more than I ever visualized.”
But Walter is anything but insignificant. From birds and raccoons to river otters, armadillos, and deer, CROW has helped restore the health of Florida’s wildlife population. And the organization has become a model for wildlife rehab clinics around the state and beyond.
Above: Opening day for the new CROW visitors center on Sanibel Island in January 2009.
“The mission of CROW has always been the same since Shirley started it,” says Deitschel. “I feel my job is to maintain her mission and move it forward into the years going up. Hopefully we’re going to make sure that CROW is here another forty years from now.”
For more information about CROW, visit www.crowclinic.org.