The complex began, basically, as a wildlife rehabilitation center that grew organically with its education efforts.
Today, it again turns the full force of its attention and funding on sick, injured and orphaned critters, as it prepares to begin work on a million-dollar expansion to its von Arx Wildlife Hospital.
The new Little Explorer Play Zone — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
The expansion will include an enlargement of its shorebird recovery area, two outdoor rehabilitation structures to accommodate otters and an increasing number of patients, 10 small-mammal recovery areas, four permanent public viewing areas and the installation of public educational materials.
“In the new guest education area, visitors will come face to face with some of our ‘ambassador’ animals,” says Conservancy President and CEO Rob Moher. “These former patients are unable to be released due to the extent of their injuries. We are taking great care to create areas which replicate their natural environment as much as possible.”
Currently, the public can view a limited number of patients through the nursery viewing window and from an observation deck overlooking the Shorebird Pool, where a few injured brown pelicans and cormorants live.
The hospital expansion project is expected to open in early 2016, officials say. It follows on the heels of a new Little Explorer Play Zone project that opened in January 2015.
The colorful, interactive play zone features a stylized crawl-through gopher tortoise burrow, where preschool-aged kids can “Be a gopher tortoise” and learn about their homes and all the animals that live in their burrows.
Kids are also able to crawl into a mangrove forest and climb up into a bald eagle’s nest. The classroom offers story readings, crafts and other interactive activities for young children.
The nature center’s makeover began some five years ago with the building of a new discovery center, conservation hall, learning lab and boardwalk trails to view a filter marsh and a gopher tortoise preserve. The campus now also allows access to the Naples Zoo and Gordon River Greenway.
The core of the complex, the Dalton Discovery Center, explores Southwest Florida’s various habitats, such as mangroves, uplands, Everglades, beach and ocean with hands-on exhibits.
The star attraction is a large aquarium that houses a juvenile loggerhead turtle. Other aquariums, terrariums and a touch tank hold indigenous snakes, baby alligators and other live creatures.
Docents conduct daily programs with the live animals throughout the center’s campus.
The Eaton Conservation Hall and Jeannie Meg Smith Theater shows a seven-minute introductory film in a beautiful setting.
Another highlight of a visit to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center, an electric boat ride takes you into mangrove habitat for free. Every Friday, the Boat & Lunch program stops for lunch at a local restaurant.
You can also rent kayaks to explore the waterway on your own or by tour. In season, the number of special programs and events peaks, including daily guided trail walks on the complex’s short nature trails and Evenings at the Conservancy presentations.