Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, hidden gem or depressed animal refuge?

Photo: TripAdvisor for Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium.

Photo: TripAdvisor for Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium.

The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in Fort Myers, Fla. might be one of the only attractions open during the “off-season” within 25 miles of the area, but it’s more of a train wreck than might first meet the eye.

The center is fairly expansive. It boasts 105 acres with a museum, three nature trails, a planetarium, butterfly and bird aviaries, a gift shop, meeting place and picnic sites according to its website. The landscape is clean, if overrun with local Florida fauna which adds to the jungle-like auspice of a Swiss Family Robinson-esque design.

Upon entering the museum, a single volunteer mans the welcome desk. Upon my visit, his exhausted and cynical gaze was slightly less than friendly, but he managed to take $10 per person anyway to peruse to exhibits. A modest fee for a modest show.

As I later found out the site is primarily run by volunteers, although it does have a minimal amount of paid employees, one volunteer told me. A number of volunteers swabbed the floors and checked on the animals in the main area of the museum, many of them reminiscent of an animal hoarder’s home and means.

The Center certainly cornered the market on unwanted reptiles. A large percentage of its indoor inhabitants are species of boa constrictor and rat snakes. Others range from rodents, turtles, frogs and lizards — some of them rather large. A small display contained juvenile alligators staring with a run-down disinterest that can only be borne from animals reliant on the care of a precarious non-profit dedicated to rescuing unwanted cold-blooded pets.

While the insect and arachnid room remained closed, other residents of the roach family scurried about in the rafters of the main building, apparently given free reign of the Center as its exhibit.

A smaller backroom housed even more snakes and reptiles, including a cracked aquarium housing a rather large albino boa constrictor, conveniently “repaired” with clear packing tape. When I inquired as to the state of the aquarium, I was reminded that the Center is a non-profit organization and its exhibits and animals beholden to the good will of patrons such as myself.

Leaving the unhappy inner sanctum of the museum and its “gift shop,” I ventured out into the porch and aviary environs of this area’s sunny Florida landscape.

The early afternoon sun brought out the butterflies along the landscape and its wild, overgrown flowers. The aluminum butterfly house just off the concrete slab of the lower porch house exactly zero butterflies. They had either all escaped from the tattered mesh curtains attempting to protect them as the screen doors opened and closed from visitors, or were equally barred from entry by the very same methods. A number of drifting butterflies cantered on the winds and the stamen of flowers outside of the butterfly garden house.

Nothing could have been more heartbreaking than the aviaries. Large birds of varying species –  hawks, eagles, vultures — were cooped together in close enough quarters to make any bleeding heart vegan rattled to the soul. One buzzard, curiously outside of the cages, squawked overhead and peered at its comrades from the outside equally as curious about their conditions and confinement as I was. Even more appalling, resting under the porch of the museum were other wire cage exhibits. These were fairly large in comparison to the silo of the aviary, but within the confines of what had been donated as a turtle exhibit now sat a lonesome eagle with barely eight feet of space overhead its low perch on a haphazard branch placed over the fountain pool of the previous turtle inhabitants. Next to the eagle rested a large wild pig that sat dolefully in the mud in a shady corner of the confines.

Just out from under the porch lived the relocated turtles, including a large box turtle that paced against the low, wooden fence it had been penned in while ignoring the pile of old vegetables it could feed on.

Further away from the depressed animals was a meeting house where Quakers had been convening in the late morning.

During my visit to the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, I did not bother to witness the state of the building housing fake stars and pictures of planets — I had been preoccupied with the obvious disheveled state of the animal sanctuaries. The fox and large cat were missing. A raccoon inhabited a wood and wire mesh cabin about the size of a cubicle. All manner of found, gifted or unwanted creatures littered the landscape in run-down shelters barely adequate enough to house them. One thing positive can be said about them — not a one looked malnourished. The plates of wilting greens and rotting vegetables saw to that, and the flies circling those remains could easy have complemented any diet that was lacking.

The Center, which is sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, the Florida Arts Council, the South Florida Water Management District, and the West Coast Inland Navigation District, is in serious disrepair though its mission to educate residents and visitors about Florida wildlife remains front and center — as evidenced by the dilapidated state of affairs surrounding many of the creatures they have rescued and fight to care for.

Their plight is so serious that they are advocating for Florida voters to help place the Conservation Amendment on the ballot which will hopefully benefit the water, beaches and wildlife of Florida that attracts a sizable amount of revenue in tourism every year. So desperate is their need that the Center urged visitors who are registered voters to sign the petition for the ballot, as a donor was offering them a meager $200 donation if they could collect 150 signatures.

Many of the animals at the Center are already on their last legs — unwanted pets, confiscated pets, injured or rescued from dire situations. The Center is doing all it can to stay afloat and protect Florida’s wildlife. Florida needs to protect the Center.

Morgan Mornet

Morgan is a magna cum laude graduate of Georgia State University's journalism program with a focus on public relations and a minor in English. Good thing she also decided to take lots of news and media writing electives along with a study abroad trip to Istanbul, Turkey that focused on media, business and journalism in a global context because it turns out she loves reading news, advocating for progressive civil rights and then telling other people about it. She covers "hard" local and associated news stories in the South for Biscuette, freelances and assists with media analysis and relations at an Atlanta-based international non-profit. 

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