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Kelly Grinter: Steward of Keys Wild Birds

Kelly Grinter estimates she’s rescued and released more than 20,000 injured birds since she founded the Marathon Wild Bird Center in 1995.

The wild bird sanctuary at Marathon’s Crane Point Hammock Museum and Nature Center has 11 habitats, about 40 permanent residents — including Oliver the osprey and Mr. Black-Bellied Plover — and staffer Grinter, although 20 loyal volunteers such as friend Dee Dee Schmitt assist. 

Besides birds, the center also rescues small orphaned or injured mammals, transferring them to a specialized rehabilitator in Tavernier.

Getting laid off as a graphic designer/artist at Coopers & Lybrand in Boston at age 26, when the company merged with another, led Massachusetts native Grinter to find her life’s mission. 

She learned about wildlife rehabilitation from Laura Quinn, founder of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, as an intern. A wild bird stabilization operation at Knight’s Key Campground was overwhelmed with injured birds in need of medical attention. Grinter transported injured creatures to Tavernier for treatment. 

Quinn asked Grinter if she wanted to start her own rescue center, advising her to go to Crane Point and to meet Richie Moretti, founder and director of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital.

Grinter also managed the Key West Wildlife Center at Indigenous Park off White Street from 2005 to 2007. 

Last year, she celebrated the Marathon Wild Bird Center’s 25th anniversary. In the next two years, she hopes to build a new wild bird facility at Crane Point.

Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Kelly Grinter: I drove down to the Keys in April 1994 to do a six-week internship at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier and get a crash course in wildlife rehabilitation so I could return to Massachusetts and rehab skunks and porcupines. But things changed. Originally, I didn’t even think much about birds, but Laura Quinn took me on. Now I know birds!

KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you? 

KG: Seeing familiar faces all over is an important part of my overall way of island life. Whether it’s in a store, at the post office or on a bird rescue, our community is unique in that it’s made up of locals — new and seasoned — and snowbirds. Marathon is a small town and it’s nice to see someone you know pretty much everywhere.

KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world? 

KG: Each bird I admit into our care inspires me. I look into each patient’s eyes and hope I’m doing right by them. Their stories allow me to engage visitors to the bird center at Crane Point whenever I walk along the educational display birds or when feeding our flock of pelicans. By telling visitors why specific birds are here, it makes it more personal to them. I picked up Oliver, our osprey, off the runway at the Marathon airport 19 years ago. With its partial wing and big talons, Oliver now has a story. 

KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?

KG: Keys birds are my passion. I’ve learned a lot over the years and I still learn something new every single day. Wanting to help them, wanting to give them a chance to be free again, influences my path.

KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with the local environment and unique lifestyle? 

KG: The Marathon bird center is at Crane Point, with 64 acres of hardwood hammock and coastline. I’ve never tired of the view within it on my drive to work. I absolutely love Crane Point. It’s a hidden gem.

KT: What keeps you energized and focused on your path?

KG: The future and the unknown keep me energized, challenged and focused. The same things need to get done every day, but every day there are new things that need to get done. It makes my life interesting and meaningful.

KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish? 

KG: I hope my actions will encourage others to share what they heard me say or saw me do. There’s a lesson in everything. I tell others to pick up any line and hooks they find. People always look surprised, but then agree. The more knowledge is shared, the less wildlife suffers.

KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter? 

KG: Be kind to animals, especially our Florida Keys birds, and everyone should volunteer somewhere some of the time.

KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

KG: I’m blessed with a home 100 paces from the water’s edge. My son and I really enjoy taking our kayaks out to explore the ocean whenever we get a chance. Being able to grab an hour or two of “vitamin sea” almost any day of the year is part of the beauty of living in the Keys. This is when we get to do a little bird-watching ourselves.

Kelly Grinter and her son enjoy taking kayaks out to explore the ocean whenever they get a chance.

Kelly Grinter and her son enjoy taking kayaks out to explore the ocean whenever they get a chance.

Grinter estimates she’s rescued and released more than 20,000 injured birds since she founded the Marathon Wild Bird Center in 1995.

Grinter estimates she’s rescued and released more than 20,000 injured birds since she founded the Marathon Wild Bird Center in 1995.

Kelly learned about wildlife rehabilitation from Laura Quinn, founder of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, as an intern.

Kelly learned about wildlife rehabilitation from Laura Quinn, founder of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, as an intern.

Last year, the Marathon Wild Bird Center celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Last year, the Marathon Wild Bird Center celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Grinter and son Noah, 10, who is also learning the value of volunteering and helping Florida Keys wildlife.

Grinter and son Noah, 10, who is also learning the value of volunteering and helping Florida Keys wildlife.

This article was updated on February 20, 2021 at 11:26 AM
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