His Feathered Friends

Without the help of a South Florida conservationist, the island of Dominica may bid farewell to its national bird

Reillo decided to bolt academia, but he wasn't sure how else to direct his energies. While in South Florida to interview for a job, he made the rounds of local bird sanctuaries. One of these was in Loxahatchee and owned by a medical doctor, John Vaughn. The preserve contained an eclectic group of endangered birds, such as red-browed Amazon parrots and white-bellied caiques. "I knew my birds well enough to know that what was there was very, very unusual," Reillo recalls. In 1989 he moved to Loxahatchee and took over as director of the facility. The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1994, and the group purchased the sanctuary -- birds, equipment, land, and all -- from Vaughn a year later.

The preserve is down a washboard-rutted dirt road, just beyond the reach of strip-malled South Florida. Loxahatchee Groves is one of the last South Florida outposts of eccentricity. The kind of community where having a several-hundred-pound East African bongo on your property (or twenty of the large-horned, cowlike animals, as in Reillo's case) doesn't prompt howls of protests from the local homeowners association.

Like most properties in Loxahatchee Groves, the twenty-acre Rare Species preserve is enclosed by a fence and adorned with numerous signs warning "No Trespassing." What sets the property apart is that the fencing is draped in foreboding black nursery cloth and topped with barbed wire.

Pygmy marmosets are among the unusual animals housed at Rare Species' twenty-acre animal preserve in Loxahatchee
Paul Demko
Pygmy marmosets are among the unusual animals housed at Rare Species' twenty-acre animal preserve in Loxahatchee
Bird man: Stephen Durand is a member of Dominica's three-person "parrot team"
Paul Demko
Bird man: Stephen Durand is a member of Dominica's three-person "parrot team"

Inside the compound are two nondescript trailers. One serves as the administrative offices of Rare Species, the other as Reillo's home, both of which he shares with his fellow wildlife biologist, Karen McGovern. The rest of the Rare Species staff consists of three part-timers, and the entire operation is run on a minuscule annual budget of about $100,000. Reillo himself takes no salary from the foundation.

It was under these financial strictures that Reillo told the Dominican government in early 1998 that he would attempt to raise $750,000 to help purchase 1301 acres from a private company, the Dominican Fruit Syndicate, and make possible the creation of the Morne Diablotin National Park. "We have a constituency ten miles to our east that could easily fund this," Reillo says. "I submit to individuals and to foundations, 'If you want to invest in a conservation project, find one better.'"

Reillo's confidence aside, the fundraising campaign has been somewhat less than triumphant. Rare Species has cobbled together the money but only by going into serious debt. The group has raised $439,000, or about $311,000 less than its goal. To keep the national park project from collapsing, a $150,000 contribution that was slated to pay off the nonprofit group's mortgage was added to the Dominica fund with the donor's blessing. And Reillo has sacrificed his own personal savings, although he won't say how much money that is. The group now has about 60 grant applications pending with private foundations and corporations.

Even without the added onus of fundraising, the day-to-day grind at Rare Species is ceaseless. In mid-October a mama pygmy marmoset had three babies, one more than she is capable of raising. Reillo removed one infant from the cage and nursed it himself, right down to wiping the animal's behind. Newborn pygmy marmosets -- furry little primates that were the basis for the critters in the movie Gremlins -- must be fed every two hours, around the clock. Despite this sleep-depriving schedule of care, the animal died from pneumonia in a week.

In addition to the work in Loxahatchee and Dominica, Rare Species is a technical adviser to the Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary in Christ Church, Barbados. When construction is completed, Graeme Hall will serve as an aviary for migratory birds as well as an education center. Rare Species also works closely with Tropical World de las Flores, in Veracruz, Mexico. The center propagates rare orchids, bromeliads, and other plants by collecting cell scrapings, therefore eliminating the need to uproot plants from the wild.

Beyond the two trailers on the Loxahatchee property and past another barbed wire-topped, cloth-draped fence is a private collection of animals that can be found almost nowhere else on earth. As Reillo pushes aside the fence one afternoon, we are immediately greeted with a cacophony of squawks. He would prefer not to have any animals here at all, devoting his efforts instead to preserving natural habitats. But the realities of environmental destruction make captive breeding inevitable if species are going to survive. "We're losing more than we're saving," Reillo says. He notes that, because of a few headline-grabbing victories, such as the resurgence of the bald eagle in the United States, many people assume that efforts to preserve biodiversity are flourishing. "The truth is it couldn't be worse. We're in an extinction crisis."

In one cage are several red-browed Amazon parrots, a conservation success story, at least in captivity. Only about 250 of the birds remain in the wild. Starting with a group of just eleven red-brows in 1992, Rare Species has seen its collection -- the only one in North America -- grow to 36. Reillo has now developed a manual for breeding red-brows, essentially a parrot sex guide, to help propagation efforts in other parts of the world.

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