Multiple animals died in a fire at the Alligator and Wildlife Discovery Center at the popular John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk in Madeira Beach on Thursday morning.
A post on the center’s Facebook page Thursday morning said “nearly all the animals are gone.”
“We are devastated,” the post said.
Later, after the center’s owner, Sonny Flynn, 58, was able to go into the facility, she said about 60% of the animals had been found dead.
The fire at the center at 12973 Village Blvd. was reported just before 3 a.m., according to Robin Gomez, the Madeira Beach city manager.
Flynn said she rushed over after getting a call about the fire just before 4 a.m.
She waited outside with tears in her eyes while the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office forensics unit finished surveying the scene. She said she was most worried about the skunks, squirrels, chinchillas and rats sheltered at the center.
The smell of smoke was still in the air when she was allowed into the building shortly after 9:30 a.m.
“This is my life’s work,” she said. “They were all my babies. All of them. I just tried to give them the best life.”
The wildlife center housed more than 250 animals, including lizards, small mammals, amphibians, turtles and tortoises, freshwater and saltwater marine life, and alligators, according to the facility’s website.
About 150 animals perished, including 30 mammals and most of the lizards and marine life, Flynn said.
But she said nearly 100 animals did survive, including all of the alligators, crocodiles, turtles and tortoises. Among the survivors is Rudolf, a 31-year-old tortoise who was the shelter’s first rescue. Flynn said some corals and freshwater fish also survived but were severely harmed. Many of the other animals were injured, too, she said, and they are being relocated with help from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
She said she thinks about 75% of the 10,000-square-foot building is salvageable.
“It’s going to take a massive cleanup,” Flynn said. “But we will rebuild.”
Flynn doesn’t suspect arson and said investigators never mentioned the possibility to her.
“I don’t know who would want to hurt animals,” Flynn said.
The rescue center sparked controversy in 2019 with its “sloth yoga” classes. Flynn said there hasn’t been a sloth in the building since January.
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Josette Anderson watched from the street on Thursday morning as the center’s employees carried turtles, squawking birds and small alligators out onto the second-floor balcony. She waved to her daughter, Chandler, who works for the center.
“I just got here just for support,” she said. “Just to give her a hug.”
Anderson said fire rescue did their best to save the animals, even giving CPR to a pig. The animal, like most of the center’s mammals, didn’t survive.
“She was just filled with smoke,” Anderson said.
“We have pet masks on the truck to provide oxygen to dogs and cats but this was just one of those rare circumstances with the animals involved that there wasn’t much we could do for them,” Madeira Beach Fire Chief Clint Belk told Bay News 9.
When Hurricane Ian approached in September last year, Flynn brought 52 animals from the center home. If needed, she said she’s willing to house the fire survivors herself.
In addition to relocation help from the aquarium, she said she had heard from the Gator Boys, an alligator rescue sanctuary in Everglades Holiday Park, who have offered to take in some of the center’s alligators.
Gomez, the city manager, said community support has already started to pour in. Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce set up a donation site for the shelter.
“We’ll do whatever we need to do to get this up and running as quickly as we can,” Gomez said.
Gomez said at least three other businesses were damaged in the fire.
Tina Sullivan owns two businesses in the area — one on each side of the rescue shelter: Beach Bites & Burgers and Beach Fun & Games Arcade. She doesn’t know when she will be able to reopen.
“I can’t even think straight,” she said. “I’m trying to hold it together.”
Belk told Bay News 9 that damage is expected to exceed $1 million and that water and smoke damaged nearby businesses.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of the fire, Belk said.
The animals at the center originated from places such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, wildlife rescues and owners who could no longer care for their pets, according to the website.
“Our immediate goal is the provision of humane, professional care for pet surrenders and orphaned native wildlife that cannot be safely returned to the wild,” the center said in its mission statement.