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Cape Coral's citizen sanctuary

Becky Matsubara

These guys have waterfront lots in Cape Coral given to them, but they could care less about the view – they’re in too much of a hurry to dig a basement.

Burrowing owls and gopher tortoises have been either discovered on, or been brought to, one of 48 residential lots where nothing will ever be built. These plots of land were purchased by members of a wildlife group establishing a patchwork sanctuary for the animals throughout the northwestern part of town.

Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife has spent about $450,000 purchasing four dozen plots and are negotiating to buy five more. The 300-member group has been amassing the citizen sanctuary since 2002. The group focuses on burrowing owls and gopher tortoises because they both dig into the ground for protection and because most of the lots are easy-to-dig-in sandy spoil dredged up from the bay bottom when the city was created in the 1950s.

“Many of the developers don’t care about the burrowing owls,” said Carl Veaux, a jovial, 83-year-old past president of the group. “That’s what burrowing owls are facing. The rapid development of the city.”

Cape Coral has been in a state of near-constant development since the mid-1950 when a pair of brothers from Baltimore flew over a place called Redfish Point, looked down and saw opportunity. Leonard and Jack Rosen purchased the 103-square-mile spit of land for $678,000, formed the Gulf American Land Company, and began dredging canals, creating home sites, and laying roads. Celebrities were flown in to help the brothers sell some of the same types of lots that are being purchased today by the CCFOW.

Cape Coral’s population of nearly 200,000 people in the 2020 Census and its 120 square miles make the city the largest by population and by mass between Tampa to the north and Miami to the south. Because of the way the Rosen Brothers incorporated canals into the entire fabric of Cape Coral, its 400 miles of navigable waterways is the most of any city anywhere in the world.

“Some people are infatuated with the burrowing owls, “ said Veaux, an long-time environmental activist in Southwest Florida who has been recognized with more than a dozen awards for his work.

He is also fond of saying “burrowing owls."

“Others, well, they either love burrowing owls or they hate them,” Veaux said. “And if they hate them, they buy the lots with burrowing owls on them and then get a permit to destroy the nests of the burrowing owls.” Members of CCFOW relocate any owl, or gopher tortoise, or any other animal they know is about to be displaced in hopes when left at one of the group’s lots the animal will call it home.

In addition to being the city with the most miles of navigable waterways in the world, Cape Coral is also the place with the most number of burrowing owls in the state at about 3,000. The burrowing owl is Cape Coral’s official city bird, and the guest of honor at the 20th Burrowing Owl Festival and Wildlife Exposition, which is going to be held this weekend at the Rotary Park Environmental Center.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says burrowing owls are native to North and South America.

“One of Florida's smallest owls, the burrowing owl lives in open, treeless areas. It spends most of its time on the ground where its sandy brown plumage provides camouflage from potential predators or in a burrow for both roosting and nesting,” the commission wrote on a fact sheet about the owl.

“Historically, the burrowing owl occupied the open native prairies of central Florida. Recently, these populations have decreased because of disappearing habitat,” the FWC wrote. Now “owls inhabit cleared areas that offer short groundcover such as pastures, agricultural fields, golf courses, airports and” – wait for it …. -- “ vacant lots in residential areas.”

Both the Florida burrowing owl and gopher tortoise are considered threatened by the State of Florida.

But only one of the two animals represent Cape Coral in an official capacity.

“We made that happen,” Veaux said. “We got the city council to nominate the burrowing owl and it passed.”

The 20th Burrowing Owl Festival and Wildlife Exposition is going to be held Saturday, Feb. 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rotary Park Environmental Center, 5505 Rose Garden Rd., Cape Coral. Any burrowing owls will be of the stuffed variety due to its protected status, but there will be a tent featuring lots of other animals, some that can be petted and others that cannot. There will be dozens of booths with arts and crafts vendors, food for sale, face painting, a band, tours of the park’s butterfly museum and educational displays about the area’s wildlife. A $5 donation is requested from anyone age 13 or older with the proceeds going to help the wildlife of Cape Coral.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.