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Florida couple has helped over 50,000 creatures

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Gail and Ed Straight will leave Wildlife Inc. Education and Rehabilitation for an hour Sunday for their grandson’s birthday, but after that they’ve got to get home. There are dozens of Manatee County critters who need their help.

As Gail talked about the rescue of four otter pups Friday, a phone at the nonprofit Bradenton Beach animal rescue rang perpetually. She and her husband rotated answering calls, listening to voicemails and dispatching rescuers. They have been Manatee County’s most steady wildlife rehab for 33 years and are beloved residents of Anna Maria Island.

Just this year, AMI’s weekly newspaper, The Islander, named the couple 2019’s Islanders of the Year.

Nobody deserved it more.

Gail and Ed Straight love wildlife so much they haven’t taken a vacation together in about 30 years, but in that time, they’ve helped close to 50,000 stranded animals.

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Asked why they do a job that never gives them a break, Gail jokes about how tired she is and ponders whether anyone else would fill their shoes.

“There are days that I sit down and think, do I want to keep doing this, and then I think what else am I going to do if I don’t do this?” Gail Straight said. “Who’s going to take care of these animals and do it right. We have a lot of volunteers who come in here the first week, ‘This is what I want to do!’ By the end of four weeks, ‘This is not what I want to do.’ They see we haven’t been on vacation together in 30 years because someone always has to be here.”

Part of the job is death. She guesses she’s seen about 15,000 dying, dead or euthanized animals.

“Even though you try not to really attach yourself, your heart to an animal, it happens,” Gail said.

During springtime, cold snaps and tropical weather, wildlife rescues are flooded. A hurricane can lead to the stranding of hundreds of squirrels overnight.

The Straights are pros at activating the call tree and finding help. Their friends, volunteers and trained rescuers are quick to respond to the couple who have only left the island three times during hurricanes. Their children begged them to leave during Hurricane Irma.

Ed Straight is a former Bradenton Beach city commissioner, emergency management chief, reserve deputy and paramedic. He’s gone from helping people to becoming an animal rescuer.

“It’s really demanding for us to keep up with the whole county,” he said, adding that his best friend is a squirrel that begs for peanuts. “And it’s probably one of the more enjoyable things you do. It has its ups and downs, but most of the time it’s quite rewarding.”

Ed Straight is a St. Petersburg native and met Gail, a New Yorker who liked to collect bugs and frogs, in Florida. They complement each other well. Her passion for wildlife, his management ability and a shared love for creatures.

Ed says rescuing people is easier because they can tell you what’s wrong with them.

“It’s an interesting perspective because you were working with people and saving them and that’s life and death,” he said. “You’re doing the same thing with animals but you have to figure out what’s wrong yourself.”

Gail said her love for helping animals started with collecting frogs and lightning bugs.

“Up north you'd collect lightning bugs and you’d watch them and then you’d let them go again,” Gail said. “I thought it was really cool. I mean, you are looking and trying to figure out how they fly and how that little light works.”

Wildlife Inc. rescues everything but sea life. They ask that people refrain from trying to rehabilitate animals themselves because it makes their job harder. It’s also illegal.

Gail and Ed are certified with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to work with wildlife and prepare the animals for release. Animals, especially babies, need proper nourishment.

Recently, a person called them about four river otter pups scattered around their yard. Their eyes were barely open and a mother otter hadn’t been seen for a while.

“It was during that really cold spell,” says Gail, noting it was 30 degrees outside. “We don’t like taking babies away from the mother but they already looked dehydrated. They were cold. They weren’t together and they started having snotty noses which was not a good sign.”

The tiny critters were started on antibiotics for pneumonia. The otters appear to be recovering but probably won’t be released until September.

A picture of the four otter amigos was posted on Wildlife Inc’s Facebook page with a note that they aren’t available for public viewing. None of the animals on the campus are.

The Straights limit human contact to prepare the animals to go back into the wild.

And otters aren’t very nice.

“They can be slightly aggressive and they aren’t loyal,” says Gail, noting they only want food. “Don’t ever go near them and try to pet them or anything. We don’t allow anybody to touch these except for our volunteers who are feeding them.”

When they are bigger the otters will be taught to find their own food.

In 2019, Wildlife Inc. had 2,600 animal cases. It costs more than $100,000 yearly to operate the nonprofit group, which is assisted by volunteer veterinarians and other professionals.

In the early days, Ed Straight says he funded the rescue with his county paycheck, but these days, donations keep the operation afloat. The Straights and their volunteers are available to offer educational programs for schools, civic groups and conservation groups and have displays at art shows and other events throughout Sarasota and Manatee County.

Booking information can be found at Wildlifeinc.org.

Gail says the rehab facility is aging and they have talked about moving Wildlife Inc. to a bigger property off the island, but the expense involved in starting over is daunting — not to mention the labor. After all, they aren’t as young as they used to be.

Gail and Ed Straight are going to keep doing what they do best, saving animals on Bradenton Beach. She says if you see a wild animal that needs help, “Call us.”

This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.