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Wildlife sanctuary operator in Tampa hospital after saving rhino from wildfire

Zookeeper Donovan Smith was hospitalized with burns after trying to keep "Walter" his rhinoceros and two big cats safe Friday during what has become a 7,000 acre fire in the Naples area.  [Photo from GoFundMe]
Zookeeper Donovan Smith was hospitalized with burns after trying to keep "Walter" his rhinoceros and two big cats safe Friday during what has become a 7,000 acre fire in the Naples area. [Photo from GoFundMe]
Published Apr. 26, 2017

TAMPA — A wildlife sanctuary operator who saved a rhinoceros from a fire Friday is recovering at Tampa General Hospital after sustaining second-degree burns on 18 percent of his body, his doctors and fire officials said.

Donovan Smith, co-owner of NGALA Wildlife Preserve on Inez Road, was listed in fair condition after surgery Tuesday afternoon, spirits buoyed by the rescues of a leopard, a Florida panther and Walter, the 8-year-old, 5,000-pound white rhinoceros he has raised from infancy.

Smith, who helped start the refuge 15 years ago, managed a smile in a photo he posted to his Facebook page Friday while traveling to Tampa General.

"NGALA staff teamed together today to save all the animals! The structures and facilities fared well, the property is burned pretty bad, Mother Nature will rebound," Smith wrote.

Staff at the preserve were successful in safely evacuating the giraffe, leopard and more than 40 other animals minutes before the massive fire reached the facility. But Walter and the cats refused to get on the trailer that would take them to safety and were scared by the fire trucks and helicopters used to fight the fire, according to accounts from the hospital and a GoFundMe page.

Smith stayed behind with the animals. He later told his doctors at TGH that most of his burns came while driving a four-wheeler through the facility as the fire closed in on Walter's enclosure.

"I raced through a literal funnel of fire," Smith told a hospital spokeswoman. "You could see the skin blistering on my arms and legs."

Smith stayed with the rhino, calming him down and hosing the enclosure while a fire truck put out the blaze. The fire, which may have been sparked by a lawn mower Thursday afternoon, destroyed at least nine homes and triggered mandatory evacuations for more than 7,000 residents, the North Collier Fire Rescue District reported.

No other animals, or people, were known to be injured in the rapidly moving blaze, according to the fire rescue district.

Smith's friends created a GoFundMe page on Friday, calling it the Donovan Smith Medical Fund, and by Tuesday had reached more than half of a $35,000 goal.

The post included photos of Smith with heavily blistered skin. Updates showed him bandaged and in a hospital bed.

"Get well," wrote Greater Naples Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Christian Tobin, pitching in $250. "You did a heroic job helping us get to Walter! We helped the tortoise too."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.