By Steve Plunkett
The ailing sea turtles at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center have been temporarily moved to other facilities, its veterinarian has quit, and the coordinator of its turtle rehabilitation program and her assistant are no longer there.
“The rehabilitation facility is CLOSED until further notice,” the city-operated nature center says on its website.
The unexpected turmoil comes as Boca Raton prepares to hand off operation of the rehab program to the nonprofit Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards, formerly known as the Friends of Gumbo Limbo.
“Obviously some people aren’t happy about certain things,” city spokeswoman Anne Marie Connolly said.
The Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach took six of the program’s turtles; Zoo Miami is caring for two and the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart has one. Seven of the turtles are patients; two, named Morgan and Cane, are Gumbo Limbo “residents.”
The turtles were moved March 14, she said, following the resignation of veterinarian Dr. Maria Chadam.
Chadam, who cared for Gumbo Limbo’s turtles for more than a decade, said the time was overdue for her to focus on other aspects of her life.
“A culmination of events has quelled my optimism to a point where I cannot continue as a key member of this organization. This decision does not reflect a concern related to any one person or on any specific event,” she wrote in a Feb. 13 letter giving 30 days’ notice.
John Holloway, CEO and president of the Coastal Stewards, answered the next day: “Effective immediately, your services under the contract are no longer required,” he wrote.
“Once she resigned, that put our permit in temporary status,” Connolly said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues permits for sea turtle research and rehabilitation, with one provision being that a rehab program must have a veterinarian on staff.
Also gone from the nature center are the rehab program’s coordinator, Whitney Crowder, who started working there in 2012 as the assistant coordinator, and Emily Mirowski, her assistant, who gained worldwide attention with a Facebook post about a baby turtle who died after eating 104 bits of plastic. Both were laid off after they decided they did not want to work for the Coastal Stewards.
“Unfortunately, as far as the staff members … it didn’t work out the way we intended,” Connolly said, praising their contributions to the program. “We would have hoped they stayed onboard.”
Adding to the confusion at the nature center is the final stage of a $3.2 million project to connect pipes to a new pump on the east side of State Road A1A that will push seawater to Gumbo Limbo’s viewing tanks and aquariums. The new system should be complete by the end of the month.
Some of the relocated turtles might recover and be released back into the ocean before a new veterinarian and program staff are hired and the FWC permit is reauthorized.
“Of course, we will miss Morgan and Cane while they are away, but everyone is committed to welcoming them home as soon as possible,” Holloway wrote in an email to interested parties. “Please consider donating, shopping sustainably in the gift store, joining our membership, and check our website and social media often for exciting updates and ways you can be a part of our future.”
The city started negotiating last fall for the Coastal Stewards to assume responsibility for the rescue, rehabilitation and release program. As part of the new arrangement, donations collected at the door, which used to go to the Stewards, will now be used for ongoing maintenance and improvements.
The city owns Gumbo Limbo and the surrounding Red Reef Park; the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District pays for all operations and improvements.
The rehab program has grown tremendously over the years, Connolly said.
“While the city and the (Beach and Park District) want to support the success of the program, both organizations believe the animal rescue and veterinary component of this program can be better served by a nonprofit organization with fundraising capabilities, membership support, and the flexibility that local government agencies don’t have,” she wrote in an email. Years ago, she noted, Boca Raton transitioned all operations of the Tri-County Animal Rescue west of the city to a nonprofit.
Still open at Gumbo Limbo are its boardwalk, nature trails, gopher tortoises, aquariums, butterfly garden and exhibits. The Boca Raton City Council in late February approved spending $2.4 million from the Beach and Park District and the Stewards to rebuild Gumbo Limbo’s observation tower.