Vernon Yates Offers Refuge to All Creatures, Great and Small

From the street, Vernon Yates’ Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, Inc. looks exactly like what it used to be: a small St. Petersburg, Fla. veterinarian’s office. Behind the building, however, a 50-by-70-foot chain link fence encloses an animal collection to rival that of any small-town zoo. “The original intent,” explains Yates, 33, “was to take care of injured wildlife only. But it has grown into a center that houses escaped and exotic pets. If there’s an animal problem that no one knows what to do with, I end up with it.”

Recovered animals, snakes or birds are returned to the wild as soon as possible, though the permanently injured have a home “until their dying day.” A recent nose count of patients turned up, among others, three monkeys, four blind squirrels, three crippled owls, nine raccoons recovering from distemper, two silvery Arctic foxes, a great blue heron and one peacock. Indoors, where Yates lives with his partner, Debbie Parker, 29, and her two daughters, there is a floor-to-ceiling collection of snakes in addition to baby rabbits, opossums, a starling and six fuzzy quails: in all, more than 225 creatures.

Yates currently services three Florida counties, but says, “We go wherever there’s a need.” He answers 30 to 40 telephone calls a day and can rarely finish a meal without his beeper sounding off. Still, “working seven days a week, 24 hours a day doesn’t get to me; people get to me,” says Yates, launching into a litany of human cruelty: an opossum beaten with a nail-studded board, three raccoons sprayed with acid.

Ironically, he adds, “more animals are killed out of kindness than anything else.” One man thought a turtle would be happy in a chlorinated swimming pool. When the turtle was brought to Yates, “it was one massive sore.” Ignorance can be disastrous. “People will keep a baby raccoon three or four days, not knowing what to feed it,” he says. “When it’s barely breathing they bring it to me, expecting miracles.”

As a fierce champion of wildlife, Yates has had his share of run-ins with the state health department over its routine killing—to test for rabies—of any wild animal that bites a person. Once he went to court to help a pet owner save his coatimundi by having it quarantined. Yates’ love of animals goes back to his boyhood. The son of an auto mechanic in St. Petersburg, he always had pets that included “anything that ran loose.” He quit school at 15 to work in an auto repair shop and later as an electrician. By Yates’ 21st birthday he had already owned a lion and a leopard and acquired an ocelot. Even though he sold it to please his wife, Yates’ first marriage failed.

In the late ’70s Yates did volunteer work for Ralph Heath’s Suncoast Sea-bird Sanctuary—bringing home four-legged creatures and reptiles. Soon he was receiving referrals from the area’s two SPCAs. In 1984, when his second marriage foundered and his wife ordered Yates and his creatures out of their house, St. Petersburg Mayor Corinne Freeman arranged a dollar-a-year lease on the veterinarian’s office.

Yates keeps the operation going on donations and from the fees he collects for removing nuisance animals such as opossums and raccoons—$5 a day for each trap set and $7 for each animal removed to a wilderness site. “We collected about $50,000 last year and spent every penny and then some,” he says. “There are days I feel like, ‘To hell with the world,’ ” he admits. But as the dusk settles in and the owls rustle their feathers and little foxes yip and tumble at play, Yates reconsiders. “It’s a dirty job,” he admits, “but it’s worth it when you can see the animals run back into the wild.”

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