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October 04,2017 - Octagon’s friends, volunteers help restore the battered sanctuary

September 27, 2017

BY BOB MASSEY bmassey@floridaweekly.com

 

When Hurricane Irma’s eye passed over Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary, offering a brief reprieve from battering winds and driving rain before returning to its previous state of rage, Lauri Caron ventured into the compound to assess the damage.

She had chosen to remain on the property with her beloved animals, keeping in contact with members of her volunteer staff via text. Now she wore a motorcycle helmet and carried a gun as she raced against the storm’s unyielding clock.

The helmet was to protect her from potential debris. The gun was to protect her from any dangerous predators — bears, leopards, lions, tigers, hyenas, baboons, wolves and more — that might have escaped from their enclosures, posing a deadly threat to the woman who has dedicated the last 26 years of her life to caring for them.

“I also have tranquilizers and a CO2 rifle I carry around, and then I can dart them if I need to,” Ms. Caron said. “But with all this water, if I had darted them, they could have drowned. If they get a little bit of water in their lungs and aspirate, it could cause an infection and kill them in about two days.”

Ms. Caron had already discovered damage even before Irma had struck in force. After an hour of incessant pounding, she saw the results of the storm’s fury. And the show was only half over.

“There was that break — that little bit of time — and I was seeing a lot of damage,” she said. “It was just overwhelming. When the last part of the eye started coming in, I was still over by the bears and I was trying to make my way back to safety. I was worried about alligators and all the animals.”

After Irma made her exit, she attempted to survey the compound, but — with about 3 feet of water flooding the entire sanctuary — deemed it too dangerous.

When Monday morning broke, Ms. Caron said she was hoping the damage wasn’t as extensive as what she had seen the night before.

“But, boy, when I saw it in the daylight, I felt defeated,” she said.

Not a single trail in the complex could be traversed. They were all blocked by vegetation and debris.

“We needed chainsaws just to get through,” said Sandy O’Grady, Octagon’s volunteer coordinator. “We lost a total of 60 trees.”

Making the recovery even more difficult was nearly waist-high water that made high boots useless.

Ms. O’Grady took Florida Weekly on a tour of the complex on Friday, Sept. 22. The trails were surprisingly clear, save for the occasional muddy puddle — thanks to not only Octagon’s volunteers, but also an outpouring of aid from the community.

Babcock Ranch, the sanctuary’s neighbor, sent teams with machinery to remove debris and straighten fallen trees. Schools sent volunteers to rake and pick up.

“I overfed everybody (the animals) Saturday before the hurricane,” Ms. Caron said. “Then I just went with my gut in where I think I need to have those animals locked out so they’re confined but safe, and they can get away from the weather. Where the trees fell, I was lucky I picked the areas I did because we could have really had a problem. All the animals survived. The animals were on the other side of the tree damage.”

Even though the water has since receded, the animals have all been placed on a regimen of antibiotics as a precaution, and they have all been wormed again as well.

“We don’t know what was sitting in all that water,” Ms. Caron said. “We were taking wheelbarrows of bleach and dumping it everywhere just to try to keep whatever bacteria might be in there down.”

While none of the animals’ cages were damaged, the same can’t be said for the barrier fences that provide an extra layer of protection between the animals and human visitors. Falling trees compromised many of them.

Octagon will remain closed until those fences can be repaired.

“By law, have to have our barrier fences up perfectly before we can allow the public to come in,” Ms. Caron noted.

While that’s a good thing, the lack of visitors also creates a hardship for the sanctuary.

Octagon is not a zoo. There is no buying, selling or breeding of animals. One sign on the campus actually likens it to an animal nursing/retirement home.

Most of the animals arrive abused and/or unwanted, fraught with emotional or physical issues. Octagon helps them enjoy the last part of their lives, making them as comfortable and free from pain as possible.

“All of these animals are 10-15 generations born into captivity,” explained Ms. O’Grady. “They have no experience — and their parents have no experience — about how to teach them about how to get along in the wild. So there’s no way they can be put back into the wild because they never came out of it.”

Octagon has existed for just shy of 40 years. It was founded by Omar Caron and his son, Pete, as a place to house two ursine performers that had starred in the “Gentle Ben” television series, which was filmed in Florida during the 1960s.

Omar died in 1983. Pete and Ms. Caron were wed, but he passed away in 2005 after only three years of marriage.

“Pete died a little bit after Hurricane Charley,” Ms. Caron recalled. “I went through Wilma by myself. So I inherited it. My late husband told me that if I mess up, he’s going to come back and haunt me — and I believe him.”

There’s little chance of that. If there’s a heaven, and Pete Caron is in it, he would certainly be applauding the efforts of his wife to not only care for the animals, but also to make it one of the most unique attractions in Southwest Florida.

Ms. Caron has not only championed the 10-acre Octagon, but has faithfully served as its owner, chairwoman and manager. According to the sanctuary’s website, “Octagon leases the land, which is privately owned, for $1 per year, and is responsible for any and all maintenance. The director lives on the property and volunteers her time for free as do all the other volunteers. Odd jobs and the graciousness of other volunteers help provide for her needs.”

As a nonprofit, Octagon faces its own challenges to stay afloat in the best of times.

The sanctuary receives no federal funding. Its roughly $8,375 monthly operating costs ($3,500 for raw meat alone) are subsidized by grants, donations, fundraisers and admission fees. There’s little margin for error. And the power loss caused by Irma has taken a huge bite out of Octagon’s food supply.

Octagon first lost power on the Wednesday before the storm, and the situation stayed that way for about eight hours — after Ms. Caron had just bought a load of food.

“I’m so frustrated with that right now,” she said. “On Saturday, the power went out again, so all the stuff I bought did not freeze. So I lost all of that. You’re talking thousands of dollars of food that I had just bought, and it just makes me sick. My freezer holds about 30,000 pounds of food at one time. I lost more than 15,000 pounds.”

She is thankful for the people who let her borrow a generator. Unfortunately, the generator’s 15,000 watts weren’t enough. It would take 18,000 watts just to start the freezer — and keeping the temperature at zero degrees would require about 25,000 watts. Ms. Caron said she is considering the purchase of such a generator.

“I find that you can’t win with Mother Nature — she has her own agenda,” Ms. Caron said.

But that hasn’t taken the fight out of her.

“We are resilient,” she said. “We have been hit with so many things through the 26-plus years since I’ve been here, but we always seem to bounce back each time. … We’re tough. We have had a lot of tests.

“I would like a bit of a break, though — not just for me but also for the animals.” ¦

>> Who: Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary

>> What: An animal rescue that is home to abused and/or unwanted animals, many of them exotic, including tigers, lions, hyenas, bears, foxes, wolves and more.

>> Where: 41660 Horseshoe Road, Punta Gorda

>> When: The facility is closed due to storm damage from Hurricane Irma, and needs help.

>> How you can help: Visit the website www.octagonwildlife.org and click on the link for GoFundMe donations.