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Pandemic hits wildlife hero hard when nature center shuts down

Tina Cortez is dedicated rescuing and rehabilitating native birds, animals and reptiles at the Sawgrass Nature Center in Coral Springs.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – A South Florida wildlife hero is being recognized for her selfless actions to save injured animals who wouldn’t make it without her tender, loving care.

Tina Cortez runs a wildlife rescue center in Coral Springs and that center has been struggling since the pandemic hit. COVID-19 safety regulations forced her to reduce her staff to the bare minimum. And every week, she says, more hungry mouths come in.

For the past five years, ever since she moved to South Florida from Texas with her family, Cortez has dedicated herself to rescuing and rehabilitating native birds, animals and reptiles at the Sawgrass Nature Center and Wildlife Hospital.

She started as a volunteer and for the past two years has served as the hospital’s director and chief rehabilitation officer usually taking in, on average, over 1,000 injured or orphaned wildlife a year.

“Anything that’s native to Florida, I can take in and rehab and my initial goal is always to release,” Cortez said.

Wildlife that can’t fully recover stays at the center forever. Now there are 80 animals that call the center home thanks to the doting care of Cortez, her staff of six and her usual army of volunteers.

But on March 19, the world changed. COVID-19 happened and the city shut Cortez down. Her team of 30 volunteers were no longer allowed on property and Cortez was faced with a dilemma. How to take care of all these animals with a skeleton staff?

“We couldn’t have our volunteers in, but they still allowed us to accept animals,” Cortez said.

The animal rescuer was forced to improvise and came up with a socially distant, safe way for people to drop off rescued wildlife. The gates were shut, but she would have people contact her on her cell phone and meet them at the entrance to take the animal in.

“I would be here cleaning cages and I would have to walk up to the gate to meet someone. Yes, I got a lot of steps in,” she said.

Cortez got her steps in and the animals in, but that was only half the battle. It was baby season.

“When I get a baby bird, those birds eat every 20 to 30 minutes and when I get 20 of those birds then I’m feeding 20 of those birds every 30 minutes,” she said.

How was she going to manage? Giving up was not an option:

“It’s a hard thing to see something and know it needs your help and I’m the only thing that can help,” she said.

Well, maybe not the only thing, after all. Because of the pandemic, her husband and four kids at home weren’t working or going to school, so she did what any mom in need would do — she called for backup.

“I just told them this is what you’re going to do. I really didn’t give them the option.”

Cortez said they didn’t complain. Every day, 7 days a week, they cleaned cages, prepped meals, and tended to the babies and the injured keeping the wildlife center open and operational.

In December, the Community Foundation of Broward County took notice and recognized Cortez as one of the county’s 12 hidden heroes during the pandemic

She said she was very surprised because she said she is just doing her part.

“I was doing my part to save the world. This is what I do. I want to make the Earth better and that’s what I try to do,” she said.

The Sawgrass Nature Center is back open to the public, but they’re still only accepting rescued wildlife at the front gate. They are looking for volunteers, so if you would like to help Cortez and her animals out, the information is below.

> Click here to apply for the Sawgrass Nature Center volunteer position.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre returned home to Miami and Local 10 in September 2017.