“Don’t mind the rattlesnakes.”
That’s what Amy Kight, the new executive director of Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, says when a visitor steps into her small office off Central Boulevard. The grey and black snakes, curled up in wire boxes, were brought from their outdoor cages and placed on the floor a few feet from her desk to keep warm during this past week’s cold snap.
That’s bravery for sure, but Kight also isn’t afraid to tackle the tough task of replacing former Executive Director David Hitzig, a Jupiter Farms resident who in 1983 founded the center to help wounded Florida native animals. The current Busch Wildlife Center opened in 1993 when the Peter W. Busch Family Foundation agreed to support it.
Hitzig left on good terms, said Peter Busch, chairman of the board of the Busch Family Foundation.
“(Kight) will be our public face. We need her out there talking to the public and promoting the sanctuary,” Busch said.
A Lantana native, Kight started a career in the animal business at age 6 in a local veterinarian’s office. She’s been working at Busch Wildlife since 2004.
More interactive animal displays at the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach, Wakodatahatchee Wetlands near Delray Beach and Grassy Waters Everglades Preserve in West Palm Beach are planned, Kight said.
“People call us the hidden gem of north county. I don’t want to be hidden. I want to be the gem,” said Kight, 39.
The non-profit sanctuary rents its 35 acres from the Loxahatchee River Environmental Control District for $10 annually. About 4,500 animals — from squirrels to black bears — are treated.
The annual budget is $1.4 million, all from grants and donations. There are 17 full-time employees, four part-time and about 90 volunteers serving 100,000 visitors each year.
Admission is free. The suggested donation is $5.
Stepping up to the spacious outdoor cage that houses Florida black bears Tehya and Kiona, Kight says the biggest change since she started is the improved treatment of the animals.
She feeds Kinoa a grape through the cage. She urges the 5-foot, 250-pound animal to stand with her back feet on the ground. Kinoa’s front feet are flat against the chain-link fence. Kight uses her fingers to examine the undersides of her paws.
“We train them to stand so we can examine their paws and bellies. Before, we would anesthetize them for an exam. Also, the cages are bigger now. We hide the food and they forage to find it. The environments are better,” she emphasized.
Tortoises, parrots, bobcats, raccoons, porcupines, deer, panthers and alligators are some of the wounded native Florida animals that are treated at the Bernice Barbour Animal Hospital on the grounds.
Animals that heal go back into the wild. Those that cannot be healed, such as a bird with a broken wing, are kept at the center.
Some animals die from injuries while others are sent to animal-care centers, such as the Palm Beach Zoo and the Disney Animal Kingdom.
Animals who do not heal or cannot cope with captivity must be euthanized.
“It breaks my heart,” Kight said.
Wounded non-native animals are not turned away. A kinkajou — a furry, wide-eyed creature about the size of a cat with a curly monkey-like tail — was brought in by a resident who found it foraging in a garbage can in Jupiter Farms in November.
Kight is hoping to find an organization specializing in caring for exotics that will take the mammal, a native of South America.
A Jupiter Farms resident, Kight and her husband Paul also operate a pet-sitting and dog-walking business called Lulu’s Zoo.
Sugar, the camel, is one of their most exotic customers.
“When she stretches her neck up, I can’t reach her head,” Kight said.
Kight attended then-Palm Beach State College and got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Florida Atlantic University. She graduated with an associate’s degree in applied science in veterinary technology from St. Petersburg College.
After bartending and a few other jobs, Kight realized working with animals was her true calling.
“I love caring for animals. How many people can come to work and hold an eagle in their lap?” she said.
What’s new at Busch Wildlife
The Busch Wildlife Sancuary is working on three expansion projects. They include:
- A Discovery Center will open this year. It will include exhibits, a laboratory and interactive displays.
- A walkway is being built to the Bernice Barbour Animal Hospital, which is on sanctuary grounds. Animals will be more efficently transported for treatment and the public will be able to visit and see where animals are treated.
- A plan to raise $150,000 to build a crocodile/alligator habitat near the center’s amphitheater.