Inspiring Okeechobee: Sue Arnold helps animals

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Tara Spence, Sue Arnold and Cierra White, who started as a volunteer before joining the staff, pose at Arnold’s Wildlife Center.

“Sue Arnold and this place have literally saved my life,” said Tara Spence, who began as a volunteer but is now employed by Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Tara explained when she started volunteering 10 months ago, her mother and her husband both had recently passed away, and she was so depressed she could barely get out of bed. Then her friend forced her to go to the center one day to volunteer.

Tara said Sue and the animals were exactly what she needed to get her through the hardest time she had ever experienced in her life. She felt needed and a part of something important, and she said they need more help.

“If anyone else needs a place to belong, a reason to get up in the morning,” she said, “come on down and join us. We will make you feel welcome.”

Sue Arnold opened the rehabilitation center 25 years ago. She explained, she used to be the president of the Holstein Association and had to travel a lot. Her husband missed her and wanted her to stay home. He told her she could do anything she wanted if she would just stay home, so, she said, she told him she wanted to open an animal rehab. In the past, she had been a medical technologist, so she had some training she felt would help her with this. Her husband agreed, and she went for a year’s training at Creature Safe Place in Fort Pierce before opening her own place.

She said she had 200 animals in her first year, and now they are up to 1,200. “All the animals are here because someone didn’t respect them,” said Tara. “It’s bittersweet when we finally release them.”

Sue nods knowingly. “When you first start, you want to save the entire world. That’s impossible. You have to devote your time to the ones you can save.”

Sue opened the center because at that time, no one else was doing anything like it. Someone had to help the animals. She had the medical background and the space. The town got behind her.

Local builders came out and built the animal hospital free of charge. Donny Odon organized it. Bari Fischer ran the Paris marathon to get the seed money they needed, and she raised $23,000.

The center is nonprofit and is supported by donations and fundraisers. Some donors try to come up with ways to make money. Sue finances some things herself, and of course, they ask for a small admission fee.

When Sue’s husband asked her to stay home more, he didn’t know what he was getting into. The center requires 24 hour a day care. “You have to give up a lot of other things.” She said she hadn’t left in years until Tara came along, and she just recently went on a trip to visit her best friend in Scotland for the friend’s birthday. “It was my first trip in 20-something years,” she explained.

The center is happy to have the services of two veterinarians, Dr. Jim Letcher from Okeechobee and Dr. Alicia Emerson from Daytona.

One of Tara’s favorite animals is Kohie, a 240-pound panther, who can never be released because of heart problems. Kohie had open-heart surgery and has always been in captivity. An animal must have at least an 85 percent chance of survival in the wild before it can be released, and Kohie does not.

They have a beautiful lynx that Tara explained someone smuggled into the country for the sole purpose of stuffing. They will keep him forever because they can’t send him back to Africa.

They have a Fennec fox, which Tara said is so mean you could feed it tuna tartar three times a day on a silver spoon and it would still hate you.

They also have marmosets, which she described as “the devil.” She said she would rather be in a pen with a panther with T-bone steaks taped to her body than with these little buggers.

All joking aside, she said she loves all these animals. They are like family to her.

The center has a beautiful butterfly garden where Tara said people enjoy sitting on benches and reading on a sunny day. “It’s peaceful and people just like to come out here,” she said. Many groups come out for field trips, including the ARC who comes monthly. “It’s refreshing and calming. You just feel better after you have been here for a while.”

Sue Arnold is helping animals out at her center, and according to Tara, she is also helping people. If you are looking for something to do with your spare time, won’t you consider joining her? You might be surprised at who really benefits from the deal.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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