SEBRING - Nearly 30 years ago, a student brought an injured opossum to a school where Karen Wrede taught.
Although the plan was to eventually euthanize the animal, Wrede saved it, and she and her husband, David, got a license to keep the animal as a pet.
From there their efforts mushroomed.
Eventually, they opened Wrede's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where they saved animals, such as deer, bats, foxes, bobcats, cougars, owls and bald eagles.
Now, a chapter has closed on the rehabilitation center, which shut down the end of last year.
"It all runs on donations and the donations are off 70 to 80 percent," David Wrede said.
The number of volunteers, like the cash donations, has also steadily fallen, Wrede said. As he and his wife, who has experienced health problems, approach their 70s, it becomes increasingly challenging to do most of the work themselves.
The closure is significant not only for Highlands County, but the region, he said. His rehabilitation center is the only one of its kind in the area that includes Highlands, Hardee, Glades and much of Okeechobee and southern Polk counties.
Wrede said they will continue to pursue the educational aspect of the center as many of the animals that remain suffer serious-enough injuries they cannot be released into the wild.
Tours of the facility can be arranged by appointment.
In the long term, he said, the fate of those animals depends on donations and volunteers. It costs thousands of dollars to continue to maintain suitable habitat.
Most other rehabilitation centers won't accept those animals as they are full, he explained. Zoos generally aren't interested in the types of animals for which he cares, he said.
The Wredes began their center after they kept the opossum and a representative from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission asked them if they wanted to begin rehabilitating animals.
Over the years, they've dealt with hundreds, if not thousands, of injured animals, he said.
Currently, one of the areas with large cages includes vultures, hawks, owls and a sandhill crane.
"They all have injuries," he said. They have wing issues and they can't be returned to the wild. They usually get injured from being hit by a motor vehicle. That is true with one of the bald eagles, he said.
Building the cages for the birds cost around $30,000, he said. Wiring for a cage can cost several hundred dollars, he added.
Whether the remaining animals can maintain a normal lifestyle depends on support, he said.
"We can't do it without the volunteers," he added.
For more information, call Wrede at (863) 386-2770. Wrede said anyone who needs help regarding rehabilitating an animal should call FWC at (888) 648-3200.