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Owners offered amnesty for illegal pets

A three-pawed red fox, one-winged American Bald Eagle and snapping turtle with head burns call it home.

Saturday, Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown plans to take in more exotic animals when it hosts Long Island's first amnesty day for the surrender of illegal reptiles and amphibians, said Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

People can anonymously drop off reptiles that are venomous, species and subspecies of Crocodilia, and some large constrictor snakes, large lizards and monitors without fear of prosecution, he said. Officials plan to move the animals to a reptile sanctuary out of state. "Stick to your dogs or cats . . . these do not make good pets," said Gross. "Sooner or later, somebody is going to get hurt."

Sweetbriar is one of a few Long Island nature centers that offers wildlife rehabilitation services to animals and natural science education to children and adults.

"The biggest challenge is keeping things alive," said Janine Bendicksen, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the 40-year-old nonprofit organization. "We're getting things at death's door, so we have to immediately do major work to get this animal warm again, to get him hydrated, to get him fed."

Saturday's event -- organized by the Suffolk County SPCA, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture -- is to be held from noon to 4 p.m. Veterinarians, herpetologists and a mobile hospital will be on site.

The amnesty comes less than 10 days after the DEC captured four juvenile alligators from the Peconic River, bordering Brookhaven and Riverhead, said DEC regional director Peter A. Scully. "Alligators released into Long Island waters have become an all-too-common occurrence in recent years," he said in a statement. "Unfortunately, individuals who attain these animals often find themselves incapable of caring for them as they grow."

Sweetbriar houses nearly 100 resident animals and 26 birds of prey, said wildlife care coordinator Isabel Fernandes, who recently helped a volunteer prepare strawberries, lettuce and honeydew for iguanas and turtles.

The public can see permanent residents -- a peregrine falcon, chinchillas, a bearded dragon and smokey jungle frog -- during the center's visiting hours or at special events.

Hundreds of species make homes on the center's 54 acres of gardens, woodland, wetland habitats, or in its seasonal butterfly and moth vivarium.

Lucky, a great horned owl, was recently released back into the wild after a month in rehabilitation. He had become entangled in a soccer net in the backyard of a Fort Salonga home.

"As a service to the public, a wildlife rehabilitation center is so important because vets -- most of them . . . will not take in wildlife," said Bendicksen.

Lorenzo Ardito, 68, of Nissequogue, and his daughter Anna Daniels, 41, of Smithtown, said they were glad to learn of Sweetbriar after searching for a place to bring a screech owl found unresponsive in Ardito's shrubs. "We felt bad. We didn't know what to do with him," Daniels said. "We definitely have to come here in the summer."

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