SPRING HILL — Lots of people are out there who volunteer their time to rescue and adopt out furry pets. There aren’t so many willing to corral a constrictor, inter an iguana or take in a turtle.
If you need any of those services, Lauren Bertke and her team at Hernando Reptile and Exotics Rescue are on call 24-7.
Formed at the beginning of the year, Bertke’s rescue service is much needed, the Spring Hill resident said. The nonprofit group is state certified and does not charge for its services.
“I worked in cat and dog rescue, but I’ve always had a passion for reptiles,” she said. “There are so many resources for furry creatures. There aren’t that many for snakes and reptiles.”
“Passion” may not be an adequate word. Looking around Bertke’s home, cages and glass tanks are everywhere, housing snakes, lizards and other reptiles she’s taken in to re-home. She has 28 leopard geckos. If she can’t adopt out or otherwise find a place for the reptiles, she keeps and cares for them until she can. Some of them serve as her “ambassadors.”
“Our ambassadors go to events and help us educate children about reptiles,” Bertke said. “They are the ones we take out in public.”
She also offers tours for children, who come to her home and see the creatures and learn about them. More information about the organization is online at www.facebook.com/hernandoreptile.
Bertke’s organization primarily serves Hernando and Pasco counties. While that’s the home territory, she has volunteers scattered throughout Florida willing to go out on calls. Many of those calls are from people who realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
“They get a snake when it’s small and then it grows up and it’s a lot bigger than they imagined,” said Bertke. “They need live food and care and keeping up with that becomes too much.”
Many reptile owners opt to release their animals into the wild, which has become a major problem in parts of Florida, particularly South Florida, where it is warmer and the environment allows pythons, boas and iguanas to thrive and reproduce.
“They don’t belong in places like the Everglades,” said Bertke. “I’d rather they come to us rather than be released into the wild; that’s not good for them or anyone.”
Bertke only takes in exotic reptiles. Native species like rat snakes and alligators are handled by state wildlife personnel. She also doesn’t deal with venomous snakes.
While reptiles make up a large portion of the animals she rescues, she does deal with some exotic mammals. She’s housing a pair of ferrets and has a pig that’s half wild boar and half Vietnamese pot belly pig. She also has some exotic birds.
Bertke, who is a dispatcher with the Florida Highway Patrol, funds the service out of her own pocket and whatever donations she gets. Those donations aren’t coming in fast enough yet, she said, but she’s hoping that by taking her ambassador animals into the community and connecting with more people, the donations will improve.
“So far, we’ve only gotten about $500 in donations since we stated,” said Bertke. “That’s about what it costs every month to feed and care for all of them.”
The rescue service’s Facebook page has information about events, how to donate and other information. Those looking to contact Bertke for a rescue or other info can call 352-403-4255. That number also is the 24-hour rescue number.