With a focus on the rescue, rehabilitation and release of wild animals, McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary is a nonprofit that melds all facets of this important mission. The eight-acre facility started out as a small, private space for Mark McCarthy and his exotic animal collection.
“At the time, in 1990, there were very few houses,” McCarthy said. “I talked to the neighbors beforehand, and they are my best ally. They never complain — and it gets loud here sometimes.”
The noise level isn’t due to loud music, but the sounds of exotic wildlife ranging from lions to lemurs. The sanctuary is a permanent home for more than 150 animals, in addition to a wide array of temporary creatures there receiving treatment for injuries before heading back into the wild.
While McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary works with many species, the rescue, rehabilitation and release process is for native animals only. Every year, the facility handles countless squirrels and birds, but this past season proved to have some surprises in store.
“We received an otter who was completely nonresponsive,” Office Manager Barbara Drury recalled. “He was unconscious for three or four days. All that time, we were still giving him medicine and treatment, so we were thrilled he pulled through. Eventually, he recovered and grew up enough to be released back into the wild.”
A reptile-guy for sure, McCarthy started his love of animals with snakes. When he was just 16, he moved to Florida by hitchhiking from Michigan to Miami with a backpack full of snakes and a dream to work at the Miami Serpentarium. Some dreams come true. He was hired on the spot.
Throughout his 30-year career working with animals, McCarthy also spent a significant amount of time in the television, film and print production business, during which he collected more exotic species, including birds and big cats. These animals often came to him under scary circumstances.
“I came back from Africa and had just brought back my wife, Aneth, and I get a phone call at 3 o’ clock in the morning from Officer Rick Brown from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission,” McCarthy recalled. “He does the Orlando area, and said, ‘Mark, I’ve got a problem. I just seized a tiger and a cougar out of a Motel 6 up here in Orlando, and I have nowhere to put them.’ We go up there, and sure enough there was this magician who was wanted in Minnesota for abandoning his facility, and he was literally doing magic shows out of his van on International Drive.”
Animals needing to be rehomed is a big concern, as the exotic pet industry often finds uneducated owners in deep trouble dealing with more than they expected. For example, nearly 30 large African spur-thighed tortoises, who grow to weigh well over 100 pounds, lived at McCarthy’s at one time.
“I built this place on birthday parties, and those parties turned into teachers seeing me, and eventually all these school programs on top of the production jobs,” McCarthy said. “I really enjoyed the school shows — it was probably my favorite thing to do. I mostly focused on elementary schools, but this grew so big, I don’t do them anymore.”
Now that McCarthy no longer travels to schools, guests are able to come in person to visit the animals at the sanctuary by calling and reserving a spot in one of the available tours.
Guided tours run multiple times a day, Tuesday through Saturday. Aside from getting the chance to see some rare creatures such as ligers (yes, that is a real thing), another benefit are the guides themselves. McCarthy prides himself in having keeper/guides — individuals who work with the animals every day and are able to share personal stories and insights with guests.
One such keeper/guide is Alexis Opisso, who was happy to share the story of Larry the Nile crocodile.
“Crocodilians have one of the strongest bite forces in the animal kingdom, and Larry here was a pet surrender. He was bought as a birthday present for somebody’s daughter. They were keeping him in a bathtub,” Opisso explained. “We got Larry when he was about three years old. We conditioned him not to come up to us for food. When I go in there to change his water or scrub his tub, he never bothers me.”
She then immediately shifted to fun facts about crocs, like why their teeth are so white and how she finds tooth caps that have fallen out on a regular basis as new teeth replace them.
“Education is a big part of what we do,” Drury said. “Between Mark going out to schools all those years, and all the people who come here with their families — some kids have never seen a tiger up close. So, that experience may inspire them to learn about how we can save the tigers in the wild. Then they grow up to be a child who wants to conserve what we have.”
More than 20,000 people visit McCarthy’s every year, and the organization continues a lengthy track record of excellent ratings on Trip Advisor, which also puts them in the top spot for things to do in the West Palm Beach area.
Despite all the attention, staff keeps the tours limited for the sake of the animals’ well-being. “The tours are scheduled in a way that guests are gone late in the afternoon and the animals can have a normal evening routine to finish the day,” Drury said. “All of this started because of Mark’s first impression, and now all of these other children get a ‘wow’ moment, too.”
McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary is located at 12943 61st Street North in The Acreage. To make a reservation for a guided tour, call (561) 790-2116. For more information about the mission, animals and how to get involved, visit www.mccarthyswildlife.com.