- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2016

MIAMI (AP) - A tortoise that has charmed staff at a seabird rescue center has become something of a mascot for South Florida’s problems with exotic species.

The footstool-sized South American yellow-footed tortoise is a resident at Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami.

Staff named the tortoise Master Oogway after character known for his wise sayings in the “Kung Fu Panda” animated movies. The nonnative tortoise brought in by state wildlife officers - likely an escaped pet - is known to act more like a puppy than a reptile, eating out of people’s hands and climbing into their laps to have his chin scratched.

The center hopes those tendencies will help it promote responsible pet ownership and raise awareness about its mission to treat and release only native species.

Executive Director Christopher Boykin told The Miami Herald (https://hrld.us/2heLNf7 ) that rehab for exotic species like the tortoise strains the center’s budget and space for native Florida wildlife.

Boykin says people often bring birds to the center without realizing that they’re bringing in exotic wildlife. Some nonnative species first arrived in the state as pets, and animals that escaped from or were released by their owners - including pythons, tegus and iguanas - now threaten Florida’s native wildlife.

“We have 300 species of birds in Miami. It’s hard to know what’s native and what’s exotic,” Boykin said. When a rescuer has traveled “in traffic for an hour and they’re crying, it’s hard for us to turn them away,” he added. “We don’t want to do that. But we do want to educate them upfront on what’s native and what’s exotic.”

Pelican Harbor cared for 2,505 animals representing 152 different species in 2016.

This year the center, which started in a tool shed and now occupies over 900 square feet in a former county building, had to scale back the number of nonnative animals it treats after the Humane Society of Broward County said it could no longer accept the rehabbed animals.

Pelican Harbor hopes to pivot to explaining the risks of owning exotic pets and the need for proper care for those animals. The center is now in the midst of its annual fundraiser to collect $25,000 to feed the animals its cares for throughout the year.

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Online:

Pelican Harbor Seabird Station: https://www.pelicanharbor.org

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Information from: The Miami Herald, https://www.herald.com


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