A manatee spotted in the city’s waterways bears deep scars from a speeding boat. A disoriented sea turtle marches toward the beach’s skyscraping lights, only to be struck by a vehicle moments later. A pelican is unable to take flight after accidentally ingesting a used pair of plastic gloves, left floating in the ocean.
Fort Lauderdale’s urban wildlife faces constant challenges for survival. Thankfully, some heroic individuals are dedicating their time, even their lives, to shaping a city where local wildlife can thrive despite intensifying man-made threats. Here, a look at two organizations making Fort Lauderdale a better place for both animals and humans.
Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP)
Humans aren’t the only ones strolling Fort Lauderdale’s beaches en masse. Between March and October, thousands of endangered sea turtles come to shore, each laying between 80 and 120 eggs. Approximately two months later, adorable little hatchlings will emerge from the sand and begin their earthly journey.
This miracle of life is quickly complicated by the mayhem of modern development. When the baby turtles surface, they look to the illuminated night sky for guidance. Blinded by artificial coastal lighting, they often become disoriented, incorrectly heading toward the city instead of the ocean, risking death from dehydration, shore predation, heat exposure, and motor vehicles. In fact, as many as 90 percent of hatchlings face disorientation in central Fort Lauderdale Beach. This begs the question: What’s being done to help?
Enter Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, STOP for short. The all-volunteer nonprofit organization works year-round on a mission “to protect and rescue sea turtles and preserve their critical habitats, while remaining free of political influence, for the benefit of conservation.” With special permits from the Florida Wildlife Commission, STOP volunteers are able to patrol the beaches at night during nesting season, monitoring nests and facilitating the journey to sea for disoriented hatchlings. “STOP gives sea turtles in Broward County a voice,” says senior staff member Melissa Alexander. “Broward County has a significant nesting density, but every municipality has its own rules about coastal lighting, meaning some areas present higher risk for sea turtle mortality than others.”
STOP prioritizes its limited resources to work in areas of higher mortality. It partners with Nova Southeastern University, which is contracted to comb the entire county coastline daily, from Hallandale Beach to Deerfield Beach, to mark and document sea turtle nesting sites. This information is then relayed to STOP so it can gauge hatch dates and begin nightly beach patrols (8 p.m.–4 a.m.) timed with firstborns in May and June. Until the last babies emerge, which is sometimes as late as December, STOP scours the beach to rescue disoriented hatchlings by gently collecting those headed in the wrong direction in buckets and re-releasing them closer to the ocean. Sometimes, the process is repeated for those who again stray. In 2019 alone, STOP volunteers hand-rescued more than 23,000 baby sea turtles (adding to a cumulative rescue total of nearly a quarter million hatchlings since 2007).
Both locals and visitors can support STOP through actions and involvement.
Book a private sea turtle trek or join a group one, shadowing volunteers for a nominal fee that goes directly to the organization. Those who can’t commit to volunteering long term can apply to the “Citizen Scientist’s Program,” a five-night voluntourism program with STOP that includes lessons in sea turtle biology and coastal ecology, training alongside STOP staff, and hands-on conservation work, monitoring nests and rescued sea turtles. If you witness a sea turtle stranding or discover a disoriented hatchling, call the STOP hotline at 954-404-0025, which is manned 24/7. Avoid using phone lights and flashlights on the beach at night, and if you happen to encounter an adult, maintain at least 50 feet (females are easily spooked and won’t nest under stress). After a family day at the beach, ask the kids to knock down the sandcastles and resurface all that’s been unearthed—these holes inadvertently cause numerous hatchling deaths annually.
Finally, support STOP with purchases from it STOP shop, a highly curated collection of branded, environmentally friendly goods, or just make a donation.
South Florida Wildlife Center
Fort Lauderdale isn’t typically viewed as a wildlife-rich destination, but try telling that to the 25 staff members at South Florida Wildlife Center (SFWC). The small-but-mighty nonprofit animal hospital sees an average of 10,000 patients per year, representing a whopping 250 species. Such species diversity is the sum of native wildlife, migratory birds, and exotics such as green iguanas, vervet monkeys, and red-crowned Amazon parrots that have crept into the local ecosystem (due to the pet trade and human irresponsibility).
SFWC’s mission is to “[protect] wildlife through rescue, rehabilitation, and education,” and staff work tirelessly to ensure its completion. Animals arrive at the Center, located near Fort Lauderdale airport, from calls to the Resource Center hotline (954-524-4302). Good Samaritans bring in orphans and injured terrestrial wildlife. In recent months, success stories have included relocating a coyote from the city back to suitable natural habitat, saving babies of an opossum and a peninsula cooter (both victims of hit-and-runs), raising an orphaned eastern screech owl (and providing flight conditioning and prey school before release), nurturing and re-releasing an injured osprey, and finding a permanent home at Flamingo Gardens wildlife sanctuary for a half-blind pelican unable to survive in the wild.
While Fort Lauderdale visitors can’t tour the Center, they can still help according to Carolina Segarra, director of outreach and volunteer services. “Don’t feed Fort Lauderdale’s wildlife. Just observe them,” she says. (This includes no bread for the ducks, most of which are the invasive Muscovy kind.) “If you spot an injured, weak, or orphaned animal, call the Resource Center number for guidance,” she adds. This may entail instructions on what to do before professional help arrives, how to safely transport an animal to the Center during regular hours, or what to do after hours—depending on the species it may mean placing the creature in one of the Center’s publicly accessible night cages or taking it directly to partner Coral Springs Animal Hospital. In all cases, the goal is the same: to rehabilitate the animals and get them back to the urban wilds as soon as possible.
You can also help SFWC through your regular shopping on Amazon. Go to smile.amazon.com and choose South Florida Wildlife Center as your designated charity. Amazon will donate 0.5 percent of eligible purchases to the charity. Purchases must be made through the Smile link each time in order to qualify (so it’s easiest to just bookmark it on a desktop or turn on the Smile setting in the app).
In an industry that already operates on a shoestring, 2020 was an exceptionally hard year for nonprofits like STOP and SFWC. Giving to these Fort Lauderdale wildlife warriors is now more important than ever.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Fort Lauderdale
Paul Rubio Paul Rubio is an award-winning travel journalist and photographer. His byline appears in AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, Fodor’s, LUXURY, MSN, NerdWallet, Palm Beach Illustrated, Yahoo Lifestyle and more. He has visited 133 countries (and counting) over the past 20 years and won 27 national awards for his writing and photography. When he’s not plotting out his next trip, Paul loves to spend time at home watching reruns of Portlandia and Parks and Recreation with his husband and rescue dog, Camo.