Oatland Island: History and Relationship to Savannah

 

Dustin Ray McNair

 

Once upon a time Oatland Island Wildlife Center was a piece of land with multiple trees and marshland, but the land was cleared to plant cotton in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, in 1927, a large white columned and brick main building was constructed. It was originally built as a retirement home for the International Order of Railroad Conductors. Then, between 1941 and 1973, during World War II, the building was used as a hospital for the U.S. Public Health Service and as a laboratory for the Centers for Disease Control.

The hospital was used to study sexually transmitted diseases from 1941-1945. The main concern was to find a cure for syphilis, but the hospital was shut down with the progress of Penicillin. In 1946, the land was offered to Carter Memorial Laboratory in Savannah to conduct research on Malaria and mosquitos led by Dr. Samuel W. Simmons. The laboratory studied sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and leprosy and several inventions were created and conducted at Oatland Island including the no pest fly strip. The laboratory experimented in the use of the pesticide called dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT). The pesticide DDT is cheap and has low toxicity to humans. It was used to control malaria-spreading mosquitoes. It was banned in the United States in 1974, but still used in many parts of the world today. The United States banned it because it is harmful to wildlife. The laboratory in Savannah closed in 1973 and was moved to a facility in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1973, the land was offered and purchased by the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. At that time, it became Oatland Island Wildlife Center. In 1973, the Board of Education signed a 30 year contract with the CDC. The CDC wanted the Board of Education to create an educational facility offered to the public. In 1998, Oatland Island Education Center closed for a short time due to a concern over found traces of the pesticide called dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT) was on the grounds in two areas. The traces of DDT was forced on the grounds by the previous owners, Carter Memorial Laboratory, that used the chemical for Malaria and mosquito control. The grounds became reopened shortly after the chemical was secured and the contract with the CDC became void in 2004 when the contract was accomplished.

Oatland Island Wildlife Center of Savannah provides their guests with unforgettable experiences with wildlife, education, and trails. It has been open to the public now for 41 going on 42 years. During that time it has been educating many residents and visitors. It has served Chatham County and educated the people about local wildlife. As well as educating people about the surrounding salt marshes in Georgia. A non-profit agency called Friend of Oatland (FOO) raises the funds to maintain the visitor’s center. The money also supports the animals in the care of Oatland Island. The money is raised through donations, gift shop sales, and other ways of support. Gift shop sales include a $45 yearly family membership to Oatland Island where a family can enter the facility an unlimited amount of times during business hours. The membership also includes access to multiple events. A family can also buy an engraved wooden board. The wooden board is placed on walkways in the park with the chosen engraved words.

The President of FOO is Kim Carver. She is a local resident that was born and raised on Wilmington Island. She has been a visitor of Oatland Island since she was young, and had been a volunteer at Oatland Island for years. She became President through her hard work and dedication. Kim Carver and other members serve on the team of this non-profit organization to support Oatland Island Wildlife Center. The organization tries to protect the animals, the wildlife, and the main building. The board members are volunteers that attend meetings, and volunteer at Oatland events. Oatland Island offers many events throughout the year like the Halloween Hike, overnight camping trips, summer camp, and other festivals. Plus, the board members participate as teachers and help with educational programs.

Oatland Island provides many opportunities to children through programs like Toddler Tuesdays and other programs. Classes include pre-school, kindergarten, and classes for grades first and up. The classes usually last an hour to three hours and are decently priced. The primary mission of Oatland Island is education and that is why they offer a variety of programs. The programs are designed for all grade levels and come with a curriculum pack. The curriculum pack provides and relates programs to the educational standards of Georgia. All schools are welcome to the programs offered at Oatland Island, but the price is usually a little bit higher. The programs are based on the human life and the history of the area. The program also provides learning about ecosystems and animal habitats found in the area.

Oatland Island includes around 100 acres of land and includes many exhibits of animals. The animals include: gray wolf, gopher tortoise, and nine – banded armadillo, eastern indigo snake, Southern flying squirrel, Carolina anole, broad-headed skink, Mediterranean gecko, red foxes, cougars, buffalos, cow, pig, American bald eagle, alligators, bobcats, barn owl, great horned owl, and a red-tailed hawk. The main building is home to a couple of snakes, a possum, gopher tortoises, and a few fish that reside in aquariums. Some baby alligators reside in the gift shop along with the furry stuffed animals. All of the animals at Oatland are native to Georgia with the exception of the wolves.

A pack of gray wolves live at the end of a trail that flows through a path in the woods called Wolf Wilderness. The wolves reside in a fence that resides next to a small cabin. This area include other animals like armadillos, peregrine falcons, snakes, and small bats. The cabin provides an air-conditioned area that allows the visitors to relax on benches while being able to examine the habitat of the wolves. The cabin also provides information about the wolves which includes their behavior, specialty of food, and other useful information. During the summer, treats like popsicles are provided to the wolves on the property. The popsicles are frozen broth or blood contained in plastic cups. An alpha male named Tundra tries to hoard the treats, but is usually unsuccessful because they either melt or the other gray wolves find them.

Fur coats tend to provide added heat to the lives of three types of animals at Oatland Island: wolves, cougars and bobcats. The added heat gives these animals added stress, but the staff at Oatland Island do their best to provide comfort on a daily basis. For instance, daily hosing by animal care technicians is given to a cougar named Shanti that loves water, paces back and forth, but likes to play peek-a-boo. The bobcats, two named Odie and Teal, are fed broth-flavored ice cubes in the summer months. Oatland Island Wildlife Center includes a small variety of predators that reside in Georgia. The predators of Georgia that reside at Oatland Island include foxes, cougars, and bobcats in a habitat called Cougar Crossing. Last Spring 2014, facilities manager Kevin Morley and his team, recreated the cougar exhibit that opened with a new cougar name Shanti.

Morley is a trusted handyman employed for the last 20 years or so by Oatland Island. During his time at Oatland he has built many habitats for the animals in the care at Oatland. A book by a local author named Chris Fuhrman wrote a book based on a cougar that resided in Oatland Island. The book is called The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Fuhrman based the book on a main character that meets a cougar while breaking into Oatland Island. The book is highly recommended and can be seen as a humorous treat for tourists. At the end of the path, after the wolf exhibit, a fenced in area includes buffalos that graze. Tourists can view these animals by walking up a ramp that leads to a viewing deck.

At one point, an old black bear lived on the property, but died in 2008 from natural causes. Luckily, Friends of Oatland (FOO) are collecting donations and those funds are going towards a new exhibit for a black bear. Oatland Island had a site called Alligator Wetlands. At this time this site is closed due to construction. The site held young alligators, sand cranes, and other local marshland birds in a 10,000-square-foot aviary. The aviary included a walkway above the alligators that provided a view of the marshland, the aviary, and the animals that resided in the aviary. The alligators and birds at this time are located at a different location on the property. Along a path at Oatland Island includes an attraction called Birds of Prey. The site include several owls, a bald eagle, and hawks. The birds are native to Georgia, but were not bred in captivity. The birds suffered injuries in the wild and were found by local residents. The birds were brought to the Wildlife Center for close inspection and hospital care. Unfortunately, the birds cannot return to the wild because of their injuries. A couple of the birds are used for educational purposes, but training them can be difficult. Keepers usually prepare the animals for training sessions by not feeding the animals desired the day before a training session. The animals must also be weighed before a training session.

One animal includes a red-tailed hawk. Training a red-tailed hawk to fly on command takes a little bit of quail meat, a few dead rats and a whole lot of patience. A person must be positioned about five feet from the perch of a red-tailed hawk. A red-tailed hawk named Hunter prefers defrosted baby rats when being trained. Some animals do not like flying on command. These animals prefer to sit on a hand that is gloved. The trainers at Oatland try to be cautious while holding the animals and a glove can protect the hand of the trainers especially while holding animals like falcons, bald eagles and barred owls. For instance, Womack, a peregrine falcon likes to be hand on a gloved hand rather than flying on command. Another bird includes Wassaw, the bald eagle, was found at a landfill in Savannah. The eagle had a broken wing that had healed improperly so she couldn’t fly when she first arrived at Oatland. She weighs 8.5 pounds and lives in an aviary with two other birds named Francesca and Arnold.

The Georgia Farm sits next to the front gate and in front of the main building. There are many animals that reside in this area. Animals that reside in this area are chickens, a donkey, a cow, one pig, a duck, rabbits and sheep. This area is considered to be the petting farm where children and adults can pet the animals. This area also includes an educational classroom, bathrooms, a drink machine, and a greenhouse full of plants that are domesticated in Georgia. On the opposite side of the road is a Pollination Station that sits parallel to the guard shack. The pollination station is home to a bee population. The exhibit provides guests with the fascination of how pollination works and includes an area for the endangered gopher tortoise that builds a home for many other animals that reside in the burrows.

Next, to the pollination is an old run down building that was once home to a partner of the bees. Oatland Island is home to one local business owned by a local man named Ted Dennard. The local man, Ted Dennard, worked as a naturalist at Oatland Island for a few years. He participated in many events at Oatland Island and helped facilitate the educational section of Oatland Island. He was once a teacher at Oatland Island and worked with troubled teens at Oatland Island.

At the age of 12-years old, Ted Dennard got stung by bees while riding in a pickup truck full of beehives. Most people would be scared of bees after that, but instead it only intrigued his fascination. His fascination led to him keeping bees in high school and while in college at the University of the South. Then, he taught beekeeping to village farmers in Central America. After, years of traveling with the Peace Corps, he came back to Savannah and went to work at Oatland Island. But, in 2002 he quit his day job and mortgaged his house. Then, put his entire savings into the business of bees. He fulfilled his dream by spending many days and nights in an old 800 square foot classroom at the Oatland Island Wildlife Preserve. Luckily, he knew the management at Oatland Island and didn’t have to pay much in rent since he was using an old abandoned building. Unfortunately, like most beginning businesses, he had very little money and could only afford to pay his rent in honey. The monthly cost of rent was less than a $100.00, but every month he paid on time in bottles of honey. The low cost of rent, and his fascination of bees led to the start of his business called the Savannah Bee Co, but may not have been possible without the help of Oatland Island.

 

Oatland Island is now available to the public as an educational facility that specializes in environmental discovery, 150 different wildlife animals and field trips to about 20,000 school students a year. It is open 361 days a year and located at 711 Sandtown Road in Savannah, GA. Admission rates range from $3.00 for students to $5.00 for adults ages 18 years or older, but year round passes are available through Friends of Oatland (FOO).

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