What’s Happening at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park?
Homosassa’s Main Spring has been attracting visitors to marvel at its clarity and biodiversity for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This amazing piece of Karst geography demonstrates one of the Nature Coast’s finest assets.
“The fishbowl spring is about 35 feet deep, with three vents feeding it. Each vent has a distinct source and unique water composition of salt-to-freshwater ratio, as well as differing depths of origin,” Kate Spratt, Park Services Specialist, teaches us as we enjoyed a tour of the Park January 19, 2021, “There are 30 springs in the Homosassa River, but this is the head spring with a daily flow of 62- to 65-million gallons.”
Mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Looking at what was once labeled the “Nature’s Giant Fishbowl” tourist attraction in the 1940s, the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park of today continues to make strides in resource management and animal care that are a credit to the Florida Park Service.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Snook, mullet, jack crevalle, and sheepshead mill around “the Fishbowl” of today. A manatee is lazing along the shallow part of the river and the sound of local birds add to this idyllic scene. Humans are visiting the park, wearing protective gear and staying socially distanced. Each small group appears to be in its own space and time, enjoying an experience that binds the generations.
The lower portion of the Fishbowl is off limits due to COVID restrictions and the park is at limited capacity, but Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is open and active – one of my favorite Nature Coast attractions.
Kate Spratt is an energetic, go-getter who took over the Park Services Specialist role from Susan Strawbridge in 2018. Susan had been with the Park when Florida Park Services took over from Citrus County, and when Citrus County took over from the Norris Corporation, and Bruce Norris, who founded the attraction.
Kate took NatureCoaster on a guided tour through today’s Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Living along the River, Kate has a deep connection with the local community and ecosystems. Her love of nature is evident as we talk.
Handrails and Improvements Continue
Recently, the Park’s handrails were upgraded, as well as cutouts added to allow easier wildlife viewing for those who are closer to the ground and those who use special accommodations. The cutouts lower the top rail of the fencing 12-18-inches. It is a great improvement that isn’t too sexy but provides real value to visitors.
Funds for park improvements come primarily from the Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park, matching Florida State Park funds, and a “fairy godmother,” who is generous and prefers to remain anonymous. Don’t you love that?
The Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park is a great group of people who work to raise funds, volunteer and organize events to make the park better. Visit their website and join today. Also, if you are planning a visit to the Park, a Friends membership is a bargain.
As we move into the birds area of the Park, a visitor asks Kate about Park procedures for the animals. We stop our tour as she earns the “information specialist” part of her title. Visitors are happy and we continue.
Renovating the Animal Night Houses
“We are currently renovating the animals’ night houses. It is important for them to have a “safe space” to retreat to while at the Park and many of the current ones can use improvement,” Kate explains.
To our right is “Beauty,” the great Golden Eagle with a single wing. “All of our animal residents are native to Florida, except Lu, and all of them cannot be on their own for one reason or another. Beauty had to have a wing amputated, but she knows she is a star of the park,” Kate tells us.
Lu continues to have his Annual Birthday Celebration despite COVID
Lu is a 61-year-old hippopotamus that was part of the park’s original showbiz animal residents. Chimpanzees, lions, and bears were used in films and television shows and then they would come back to the park to rest. (You can read more about that here.) When the State of Florida took over the park, all of the animals were sent to new homes except Lu. Governor Lawton Chiles deemed Lu a Florida citizen so he could stay at the park.
For years, Citrus County schoolchildren have been celebrating Lu’s birthday each January, singing happy birthday to him, and watching him get his special birthday cake, but 2021 requires new techniques, so Kate is working on a birthday video to share with the kids (and us, we hope).
The park gained a red wolf named ‘Wilber’, who was born in captivity and turned over to the park around Thanksgiving of 2020. There is hope that Wilber may be part of the Florida Species Survival Plan, allowing him to help repopulate this endangered species.
Eagles, Hawks & Animal Stories
We met Athena, a Bald Eagle who is between 5-6 years old. Her feathers are changing to the brilliant white on her head, a process that begins at the 5-year mark. “Athena came to us as a juvenile with a wing injury that required amputation. She became non flighted and will have a home here for the rest of her life,” Kate shares with us. Bald eagles live between 30-40 years.
“Maya was a red hawk who came here as non releasable, but she wanted to fly. She would try to move her wings every day. Every day she would get closer. The vet said she would never fly, but she wanted to so badly. She just kept moving those wings, getting stronger, reaching for her dream,” Kate shared with us as we walked to the Red Hawk display at the Park, “One day she flew. She flew out of her habitat. And she came back and ate. Then she left again for several days. We kept food out for her in her habitat. She came back and ate and left. Now we always have food for Maya and, now and then she flies in for a meal.”
Knowing each of the animals at the park is part of what makes this place so special. “We try to learn each animal’s needs, quirks, and habits. That way we can monitor them and adjust for when they need extra care,” Kate explains.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park offers acute care to manatees and is a big part of Florida Fish and Wildlife’s bear rehabilitation program. “We get most of the orphaned baby bears in the State for rehabilitation and release. It’s all behind the scenes,” Kate tells us as we tour the Felburn Wildlife Care Center, an 8,000 square foot building away from public access that includes a full kitchen and walk-in coolers for animal diets, a veterinary clinic, offices, intern/biologist/researcher housing, and a wildlife quarantine section.
Nearby is Max, the baby bear sent to the Wildlife Park in July 2020. (Read more about Maximus’ arrival here. Less than a year later, he is nearly adult size and still full of energy. We visited Max in his night house where he alternates time with Biddy, the resident female who came to the Park in 2000 as an orphan.
“Max is quite rambunctious and curious in the bear habitat, so we will be performing some modifications for his safety before he can spend much time here,” Kate explains.
Behind the Florida Panther habitat, Yuma, a male panther is lounging atop his “house.” “He’s grumpy today,” a Park volunteer tells us. Sure enough, when we get within ten feet, Yuma is growling and showing his teeth. It is exciting to experience, again reminding us that wild animals are to be respected from afar.
“We cannot put the panthers in the habitat together. Two male panthers would never be within miles of each other in the wild,” Kate explains, “These guys rotate.”
We walk over the manatee lockout, a place where manatees brought to the Park for rehabilitation, and or residency, are safely segregated from the population while they receive the care they need.
Over the bridge with alligators to the left and the Homosassa River to the right. Mullet jump, manatees swim and, “Look at that snapper!” Kate exclaims, pointing at a huge Mangrove Snapper swimming amidst the smaller fish below.
More questions from visitors, which Kate answers with enthusiasm and professionalism.
What a beautiful place this is.
To Know if You Go:
- Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is part of the Florida Park System
- Only the Park’s West Entrance on Fishbowl Drive is open. Call 352-628-5343 for information
- Hours are 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., 365 days a year. Ticket counters close at 4 p.m.
- An admission fee is required. $13 adults – $5 ages 6-12 – free 5 and under
- Children under 12 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.
- The Friends of Homosassa Wildlife Park offers the best value in membership to help the Park
- The visitor center, trams, boats, reptile house, discovery center, and below-deck of the underwater observatory are closed at this time. Check the Park’s webpage for updates.
- Programs are not available. Restroom availability may be limited.
- The Wildside Café and west entrance gift shop are open with limited capacity.
- Proper attire, including shirts and shoes, is required in the park at all times.
- Pets are not permitted, with exception of service animals. Kennels are provided free at the Visitor Center.