“The birds went first.”
Sonny Flynn is attempting to explain the unexplainable – what happened when an early-morning fire swept through her Madeira Beach business, the Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center, July 13.
Nearly 100 animals died, either from the fire (still unexplained) or from smoke inhalation. Birds, she says, are particularly susceptible to airborne toxins. Six of them perished, including Tiki, the 23-year-old military macaw, and a cockatoo Flynn named Bela Lugosi. “He called me ‘Mama,’” she recalls with a tear.
The small mammals “looked like they just went to sleep.”
A week after the mysterious blaze on the second level of John’s Pass Village (early suspicions are that it was an electrical issue that began in the ceiling), Flynn and her staff are still trying to process the loss.
The two-alarm fire was doused in less than 40 minutes, but the damage was severe: Eighteen snakes, an alligator, three hedgehogs, a skinny pig, two skunks, an ornate monitor lizard, four African doormice, guinea pigs, a Prevost squirrel, lovebirds, parakeets and more. Fish and other marine creatures.
Most of the crocodilians (the nonprofit has 10 of the 16 known species in the world, all under 4 feet in length – it’s the law) survived by immersing in their aquatic enclosures.
Aided by firefighters and police, center staff and volunteers were able to save a total of 130 creatures, which are being housed at various locations around the area until repair efforts are finished.
In the meantime, all Flynn can do is peer into 7,000 square feet of blackness. “It looks better than it did yesterday,” she comments. The air is close, the acrid smell from the fire still pervasive. A notice from the Fire Marshal, crudely taped to the front entrance, warns visitors away: UNFIT FOR HUMAN OCCUPANCY.
“I have some insurance,” Flynn says. “I don’t think it’s going to cover everything.”
She has owned the business, with a silent partner, since 2017.
“Sometimes you just don’t think it’s going to happen to you. So is there anything I could have done? No. I don’t own the building, I’m the tenant.
“Did I have the proper equipment for fire? Yes, I had the extinguishers, I had the smoke detectors, all that – but at three o’clock in the morning, no, it’s not going to help.”
A local ordinance forbids anyone – shopkeeper, restauranteur or captive wildlife manager – from sleeping overnight in any John’s Pass Village structure. Flynn lives 18 minutes away.
She got the call at 4 a.m. and raced to the beach. “They stopped me in the middle of the street. Then one of the firemen came out and said ‘I don’t know if there’s anything alive in there.’”
The Alligator & Wildlife Center has seven state licenses, and like all such business is heavily regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Flynn is required to apply for and post permits to possess and exhibit indigenous animals, although most of the residents at the Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center are exotics – that is, not native to Florida.
The business began in 2011 as a sort of modern roadside attraction – its founders reasoned that tourists visiting Florida beaches might want to see a real, live alligator. They were right.
Flynn, who’d had a lengthy career in the hospitality business, had just come off a second-act stint in property management, then as a property appraiser.
Her mentor in the latter job owned the John’s Pass attraction as a side-business; she joined his staff in 2012, and when he retired five years later, she bought the place.
Immediately, its focus began to change. The catalyst, Flynn says, was when people began “dropping off” exotic pets they no longer wanted to care for. The first was Rudolph, a 20-year-old African Sulcata tortoise (he survived the fire, and is currently in temporary quarters at Flynn’s small farm in the Highpoint area).
It was a true lightbulb moment. “Yes, it’s cool to have exotics like the bearded dragon, but if you don’t know how to take care of them … if you don’t realize you’ve bought your 12-year-old a lizard that’s going to live 15 years, he’s going to go to college and you’re going to be stuck taking care of it. They can’t take it to the dorm.
“So that was our mission when we started: We’ll take ‘em in, but then we’re going to teach people that you have to take care of ‘em. And then it grew.”
Most exotics can’t (or shouldn’t) be released into the Florida wild. The Everglades’ out-of-control python population is the most glaring example or what can go wrong.
Flynn had natural-looking enclosures designed, and ramped up the educational component of her business. “As we grew, the more passionate I grew about not being a zoo,” she explains. “And actually sharing the rescue stories. Because every single rescue has a story. Most of them are pet surrenders.”
They come from unexpected places – one alligator was shipped from Wisconsin, another from Idaho.
“There’s nothing wrong with zoos. I’m not trying to badmouth zoos. But I wanted the one-on-one to tell their stories. My philosophy is, we speak for them.”
Two local veterinarians, specializing in exotics, volunteer their time with the center.
One vestige of the old attraction remains – visitors can still hold and pose for photos with the small gators, once staff temporarily binds the animals’ mouths. In the early days, Flynn recalls, “Nobody had ever seen an alligator, and they were all terrified of them.” Visitors now also get a polite lesson in alligator ecology – and Florida conservation.
Working closely with FWC, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other organizations including the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, Flynn started John’s Pass Rescue. They respond to injured animal calls, but the focus is on finding “forever homes” for creatures – up to and including barnyard animals (that’s one reason Flynn operates her Highpoint farm).
Tina Sullivan owns the businesses on either side of the wildlife center – an arcade (Beach Fun & Games) and a restaurant (Beach Bites & Burgers). Both had extensive smoke and soot damage, but Sullivan hopes to re-open the arcade this weekend. The game machines have been extensively cleaned, the smell has receded. “We lost a lot of inventory, but we’re going to put stuff back out on the shelves, to try to get back of some semblance of normalcy.”
It’s too soon for Flynn to start thinking about normalcy. The rebuild will happen. For now, she needs assistance in all kinds of ways. The center’s Facebook page is full of news about the good work of friends and volunteers; she has set up a donation site here.
“We’re hoping that the people that have benefitted from us and our education and stuff will help,” she says. “And they have. Our community support is phenomenal.”
There is, of course, a long way to go.