Wildlife preserve protects animals during fire in Collier County

As the fire in Collier County grows Friday, employees at NGALA Wildlife Preserve in Golden Gate Estates are devising a plan to protect their animals.

These are people who know what it’s like dealing with fire near the preserve. During the Collier County fires in 2017, owner Donavan Smith of NGALA was injured by the flames while protecting a rhino that could not be evacuated.

Right now, Smith is taking a breath after moving animals. He told us it’s unnerving, having been burned so badly he needed skin grafts.

Now, an over 8,600-acre fire is getting too close to the animals he dedicates his life to once again.

Smith drove through fire in 2017 to rescue a rhino in the preserve.

“What are you gonna do, you know?” Smith said. “You got to do, you got to keep them safe.”

Smith saved the rhino back then, but he spent weeks in a burn center afterward.

Right now, his wounds are healed, but the fire is back.

“I wake up every day, and I’m like, ‘God, if I’m not supposed to be doing this, please let me know because you’ve got my attention,” Smith said. “Diamonds are forged under pressure, so we’re figuring it out.”

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there are only three or four people who could help get dozens of animals out of harm’s way.

Even under normal conditions, Smith says it’s a huge undertaking to transport one giraffe.

“The last place you want to be with a giraffe or rhino is stuck in traffic somewhere we can’t move,” Smith said.

Luckily, Friday, all the animals were able to return to the preserve, as the fire moved further away.

“Through everything we’ve been through, faith and passion carry you a long way,” Smith said.

Smith said the preserve move about 45 animals when they needed to. That did not include fish and venomous snakes that stay at NGALA. They worked to brush soot and ash off those animals Friday.

And, for now, Smith says, no animals are hurt at the preserve. And, this time, no people either. They hope that’s the way it stays.

“It’s simple passion and perseverance,” Smith said. “Bullheadedness can be a strength and a curse. It got me burnt, but, ultimately, it saved what we love. And we’re just gonna keep doing it until we can’t do it any longer.”

Reporter:Anika Henanger
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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