Oatland Island Wildlife Center, a gem of the Georgia coast, reopened to the public last weekend.
In order to maintain distancing, the center is now requiring visitors to secure tickets in advance for 30-minute entry windows.
The center’s lobby will remain closed with the exception of the gift shop. Masks are recommended everywhere on the property and required in some areas. There are a handful of other pandemic-related modifications, but Oatland Island is still pretty much the same.
Oatland’s reopening gave me the kick in the pants I needed to become a member of the nonprofit Friends of Oatland. The center is owned by the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System, but volunteers and private support are crucial to its goals of promoting education and conservation.
Individual memberships are just $25, and family memberships merely $50. Those memberships include free entry for a year.
Oatland is best-known for its various rescued and rehabilitated animals – including wolves, cougar, bobcat, and birds of prey – but there are many other reasons to visit.
I am especially fascinated by the complex history of the Oatland Island Wildlife Center’s main building, which has many stories to tell and deserves more recognition.
The grand structure opened in 1927 as a home for retired railway conductors. The beauty of the coast probably seemed like a tempting spot for retirees, but the heat, isolation and bugs must have been stifling.
In 1941, the property was converted to a public health facility. First, it was a hospital for women and children with syphilis and similar diseases. Later, the organization now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used the site for research on mosquito control.
The property became a wildlife center with an educational mission in 1974.
I routinely take out-of-town visitors to Oatland so that they can experience our coastal geography firsthand, but the island is a great spot just to take a walk and appreciate details that are new to me.
The more I visit Oatland, the more I appreciate the paths themselves – from the winding trail through the forest to the exposed boardwalk over the marsh.
After I parked at Oatland on Sunday, I was greeted first by the call of a pileated woodpecker – just a wild resident of that wild corner of the island.
Despite the hot afternoon, the wolves and a bobcat seemed more interested in visitors than on my previous trips. Maybe they were relieved to be interacting with new people, or maybe they thought it was feeding time.
Six months into the pandemic, I have similar reactions when I encounter strangers.
Oatland Island Wildlife Center is currently open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., with the final entry to the property at 3:45 p.m., but visitors should check out the website first for updates and available time slots.
Bill Dawers writes the City Talk column for the Savannah Morning News.
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