Wildlife Conservation Center brings exotic, endangered species to Jefferson County

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

A short drive south of Monticello, is the Wildlife Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization that has brought the exotic world of birds and lemurs to rural Jefferson County.
Owned and operated by Ryan Reines, a Florida State University graduate who studied biology, the 10-acre center is mostly uncleared forest land, but will eventually be home to birds and mammals from all over the world.
The center isn't a zoo and it isn't a rehabilitation center – it's a sanctuary for endangered species of lemurs and birds and a voice that speaks on conservation efforts both locally and around the globe.
The center recently moved to Jefferson County after being established in a Tallahassee neighborhood.
Reines, a self-described bird-enthusiast, began acquiring exotic birds and housing them at his home in Tallahassee.
What began as a personal passion, however, quickly became something meaningful for both Reines and those who heard about his growing assemblage of exotic birds.
As more birds came under his care, Reines says that his operation "outgrew someone's sole passion for birds." His organization continued to grow, and he and his crew of volunteers realized that their Tallahassee location would not be able to house the growing operation for much longer.
The search for a new property to sustain the flourishing conservation center brought Reines and his group to Jefferson County, where they found a 10-acre plot of land that was for sale.
The purchase was made, Reines' birds were transported across the county line, and the newly-named Wildlife Conservation Center (WCC) was planted within Jefferson County in October 2019.
Since October, the facility has expanded and welcomed new additions to the center.
Some of the birds and lemurs may be more recognizable – such as the center's rescued Brown Pelicans (which are native to Florida) or the pair of emus that greet guests alongside the center's driveway – but many of the birds or mammals at the center come from critically endangered or at-risk species.
Perhaps one of the most impressive species at the WCC is the center's Black-Casqued Wattled Hornbills. The center houses seven of the big-beaked birds, and Reines notes that there are only 11 birds of the species within the United States. The hornbills will be part of the center's future breeding program as the WCC does its part to help preserve the species.
"We have a lot of birds that people would bend over backward for," says Reines. "As far as birds go, this is one of the most unique private bird collections in the country."
Outside of the hornbills, the WCC is home to several hawks, emus, owls, a goose and a European White Stork, two Great Blue Turacos and four lemurs.
The lemurs, which are currently the only mammals housed at the center, have become quite popular with visitors and – Reines notes – are both from species that are facing endangerment in their native habitats.
At the WCC, two Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs play; they climb over obstacles and find the treats hidden for them by staff members. These lemurs weigh up to nine pounds and are among the largest of living lemur species. They are also critically endangered due to hunting and habitat loss in Madagascar.
The lemurs are seeing a population return as their species thrives in captivity, and the WCC is part of the efforts that are being made to preserve the species through captive breeding.
The center is also home to two lesser-endangered Ring-Tailed Lemurs, which are smaller in weight and more well known than the ruffed lemurs.
"We have some really rare and endangered species here," says Reines, and while the center is home to several unique species, it is what the center does behind the scenes that give further credence to their mission of conservation and species protection.
As in their name implies, conservation is a deliberate project for the center, which Reines says they accomplish through three branches of outreach.
The first being through the center directly and their breeding efforts, and the second is through supporting various in-the-field organizations that work directly with exotic and endangered species.

"We donate to a lot of other conservation organizations, or we work with them directly," says Reines. His group works closely with VulPro, a South African group that is working to solve the endangered vulture crisis in Africa; Sia, which operates under the Comanche Nation to preserve American eagles and hawks as well as protect the nation's culture and heritage; and White Oak, a Floridian group that is saving one of Florida's most endangered native bird species – the Grasshopper Sparrow.
The WCC facility currently houses an Augur Buzzard which was obtained through their partnership with Sia and will soon be facilitating Grasshopper Sparrow breeding programs.
Reines' group also funds the planting of trees in Madagascar – which contributes to preserving lemur habitats.
Perhaps one of the facility's most visible conservation contributions, however, is the public education they offer both on-site (through facility tours) and off-site (through educational programs).
For visitors, the WCC conducts tours of their budding facility. "People can come out and see our facilities and see the work that we do," says Reines. He advises that the WCC doesn't operate like a zoo – there are no trained tigers and no glossy exhibits. "The purpose of our facility is not to be open to the public," adds Reines. The purpose of his facility is to give a home and safe breeding facility to some of the world's endangered and exotic species.
"People get to see the animals we are housing, they get to understand the work we are doing, they get to interact with two of our lemurs and they can leave knowing and caring a lot more than they did before," adds Reines. "Every single thing we do here is visible to the public."
The tours are also an added bonus for the nonprofit facility, which welcomes the income of the paid tours, as the center is supported solely through donations or tours.
"We get most of our funding through educating visitors through tours," says Reines.
The WCC offers guided tours, with visitors being able to go in and interact with the center's lemurs. Tour costs range between $16-$30.
"You get a full tour of our facility and, at the end, you get a chance to interact with our critically endangered Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs," says Reines. "Every penny of that goes back into our operations here. We are looking to expand, and we always expand quicker when the funding comes in."
Reines adds that all of the center's volunteers, including himself, are under the age of 30.
"We manage ourselves completely from taxes to animal husbandry, to building animal enclosures – and we are all between the ages of 15 to 23. We're all just a bunch of good kids, trying to save the world."