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Dozens of animals die in massive fire at Florida wildlife center

Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center sustained major damage, but rescuers saved nearly 100 animals from the fire.
Dozens of animals die in massive fire at Florida wildlife center
Posted at 5:25 AM, Jul 14, 2023

A fire caused significant damage on Thursday at the Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center in Madeira Beach, Florida, killing dozens of animals, according to officials.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said around 3 a.m. Thursday, deputies on foot patrol at John’s Pass Village Boardwalk saw flames coming from a building. The sheriff's office said surrounding businesses, including the Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center, sustained major damage. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Madeira Beach Fire Chief Clint Belk said crews were met with heavy fire and smoke when they arrived. 

According to Belk, the crews made an intense interior attack but were forced outside when flames shot through the roof.

Sonny Flynn, one of the owners of the wildlife center, said 95% of the animals there were pet surrenders because people didn't know how to care for them or they weren't able to take care of them.

"They didn't deserve this," a tearful Flynn said Thursday morning.

By Thursday afternoon, Flynn said that almost 30 mammals died, but they have almost 100 animals that are alive.

"We have the vets from CMA, another wonderful rescue facility, coming to look at them, and they're assessing all their health right now," said Flynn. "So almost 100 animals. We have alligators, crocodiles, Cayman tortoises, turtles, and several lizards. We have some freshwater fish that are struggling, but we are going to save them."

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"They all have names; they all have personalities. I come in in the mornings and I talk to them like Doctor Dolittle," Flynn said.

Flynn said the center is her life.

"I'm dedicated to education, rescuing animals," Flynn said. "Outreach, conservation. Why exotics aren't necessarily good pets, and that you shouldn't have them unless you do your research." 

She continued, "Kids come in, and they get such a great feeling about knowing these animals are taken care of." 

Clearwater Marine Aquarium quickly mobilized to help in any way they could. Scripps News Tampa watched as different animals were carried out and away from the building Thursday afternoon. 

“Our team is here and on site, along with a veterinarian and two vet techs, and then we have two members of our rescue team," said Kelly Martin, vice president of Zoological Care with Clearwater Marine Aquarium. "We brought not only labor, but we also brought equipment and vehicles to aid and assist, whether it be medically, to aid and assist the human side, and to also assist if transport is warranted to other facilities.”

Flynn did a walk-through and said that three-quarters of the building is salvageable, and while it's going to take a massive cleanup, they will rebuild.

“I am a survivor. I am a cancer survivor. We will rebuild. We are a staple of the community," said Flynn. "It’s going to be, thanks to the community, it will be, and it will survive.”

This story was originally published by Emily McCain and Mary O'Connell at Scripps News Tampa.

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