The room in the makeshift animal shelter was a mess.
Dawn Fox, a Gainesville volunteer, made her way through a walkway carved through the clutter of the home-based shelter, curious about the often-closed back room she assumed was for storage.
Papers lay on countertops as if someone had thrown them like confetti, and old supplies of animal feed slumped in corners.
The room was filled with boxes. When Fox opened one of them, what she found almost took her breath away.
Inside almost all of the boxes lay barely moving baby squirrels, raccoons and other wildlife.
She scooped up an infant raccoon she was certain was dead, but it began to twitch in her hand.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said, holding back tears. “It was cold. It was smelly. And when I picked it up, it started cooing and crying.”
Fox had been volunteering at local wildlife rehabilitator Leslie Straub’s Gainesville house for about two months when she made the grisly discovery.
Both the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission charged Straub with a total of 24 wildlife rehabilitation violations.
She could face a three-year suspended wildlife rehabilitation license for the charges.
Straub said the charges took her by surprise, especially because she was inspected before without issue and cooperated with the state.
She said she received many more injured animals than usual this year, especially during the summer when Tropical Storm Debby passed through the area.
“It was a perfect storm,” Straub said. “All of your energy is spent dealing with this influx of animals. Your normal routine is thrown off.”
She said she usually gets an influx of baby animals during spring and summer. The larger number of animals makes it more difficult to clean all of the animals’ spaces.
But investigators with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found more than messy cages. They charged Straub with 23 violations such as unsanitary conditions, caging violations and neglect. The State Attorney’s Office charged her with one count of maintaining wildlife in unsanitary conditions.
Kenneth Holmes, an investigator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said he’s known Straub for years and that she used to be the go-to person to assist with injured wildlife.
“She started rehabbing out of her house, and it basically consumed her,” Holmes said. “She’s a very intelligent person, and she knows her stuff with rehab. She just wasn’t following through with what she knew.”
During her time volunteering at Straub’s house, Fox saw half-dead animals living in filthy cages, she said.
One creature still sticks out in her mind.
It was a barred owl with dark charcoal feathers dotted with ashy grey flecks.
Fox said she walked into the bathroom one day and found the owl in the bathtub, surrounded by its own feces.
“When you would walk in to where the owl was, it would burn your eyes,” she said. “I can’t believe that poor bird had to sit in there.”
Fox said she knew she had to act, but she didn’t know where to start.
She asked friends and relatives for advice until her mother recommended she get guidance from the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Workers at PETA told Fox to video record and photograph the conditions in the house. Once Fox had footage, she said, PETA contacted the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
With the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Holmes said it’s legal to keep animals in boxes, as long as they are clearly marked and babies have an alternate heat source such as a heating lamp. He said he cited Straub for her unmarked boxes and lack of warmth.
Holmes and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also cited Straub for failing to release some animals, something Fox also found questionable.
“She kept fawns until some of them had antlers beginning to grow,” Fox said.
While it is legal to keep some wild animals for education purposes with a captive wildlife license, the animals have to be categorized as nonreleasable.
After a rehabber or a veterinarian signs off that an animal can’t be released due to a condition like paraplegia or blindness, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission must approve that status before someone can keep a wild animal.
Holmes said Straub kept a few animals he believed could have survived in the wild. One of those creatures was a river otter with psychological issues.
“The idea of a wildlife rehabber is to release animals back to the wild,” Holmes said. “She didn’t do due diligence and went ahead and had (the otter) neutered. Now, it’s almost unreleasable.”
Though Straub faces multiple charges from two state agencies, the most severe punishment she will likely face is a three-year suspended wildlife rehabilitation license.
Holmes said that if Straub tries to re-apply for a license after the three-year period, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can review her charges, especially the neglect charges, and deny her the license.
“It’s not a typical neglect case like a caged dog,” Holmes said. “She’s taking in animals that would have died anyway. It’s difficult.”
But some feel that the charges and Fox’s pictures and representation of Straub’s house is unrepresentative of the care Straub provides for wildlife.
Pearse Hayes, a board member of the Florida Wildlife Care Center, said he’s been to Straub’s house multiple times and didn’t see the conditions displayed in the videos and photographs.
“(Fox) was able to set things up to make things look the way she wanted to look,” he said.
Hayes added that Straub took in a large number of wildlife injured by Tropical Storm Debby at about the same time the video was created, which may have distorted the conditions in the house.
He emphasized that the charges against Straub have nothing to do with the Florida Wildlife Care Center, which has been operating in Gainesville for more than 20 years.
But Straub said this time Fox and Holmes witnessed a very small window of the year when she was slammed with new, injured animals.
“Everything can be perfect one day,” Straub said. “And then you walk in the next, and its completely different.”
Holmes said Straub started out providing a needed service to the community, but it may have become more difficult for her to keep up with the demands of rehabilitating animals in her home.
“She’s a good-hearted person,” Holmes said. “It’s just too bad it came to this.”
Contact Shelby Webb at [email protected].