There was a fire, but HE SAVED HIS RHINO!

I love when readers contact me…

Yesterday, I posted the Saturday PhoBlog and this photo was in there.


So today, I received a comment on the Saturday PhoBlog.  It was from “Kim”:

Hi Dawn,

I’m a long time reader and look forward to your Saturday photo blogs. I was surprised to see Donovan Smith (Zebra photo below) as he lives close by. We had a horrible wildfire a few months ago and he was severely burned saving his rhino. He had skin grafts and is back to work now. Here is a link to some of the coverage:


Here is a link to the news story.

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. – Dozens of acres of a wildlife preserve in Collier County wound up circled by fire last Friday, but along with first responders fighting the flames, co-owner Donovan Smith jumped in to help protect his animals, his land, and the public.

“I decided to put myself in harm’s way essentially,” the lifelong wildlife lover told NBC2 from his Tampa General hospital bed. “Mitigating the risk the best I could to keep everyone safe, including the animals.”

The NGALA Wildlife Preserve staff has a fire mitigation plan, and with an active wildfire season in Southwest Florida, they’d been constantly working through different stages of it.

When Friday hit, they were watching, waiting, and working.

“The winds kept shifting directions,” Smith explained. “If you imagine dominoes, it came up around us and flanked us.”

That’s when Smith took even stronger action. He said he headed toward a brush truck, equipped and ready to head into his property to give firefighters a leg up on the terrain and the four remaining animals on the preserve.

“It came down to two big cats, a leopard, and a Florida panther that didn’t want to load,” Smith said.

Add in Walter the rhino and a massive tortoise, Smith wanted the firefighters to know what was out there and where, plus any information that may even help.

“We have two alternative water sources,” he said. “They need to know what’s defendable, where they can get a truck, where they can’t when it’s on fire.”

On the one-lane road, with what he described as 70-foot flames all around him, his fear was quiet, but his pain started making itself known.

“I’m looking down and you can see the blisters and skin just peeling off my arms and legs,” Smith described. “I’m riding just as fast as I can.. just praying.”

“I was at peace with the whole thing because really I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Smith called the decision a necessary one, part of his mission and responsibility owning the wildlife at NGALA.

“That’s part of the duty in having these animals,” he said. “I’m the resident expert for lack of a better word, I’m the responsible party, and I had to assume my responsibility; it’s that simple.”

“It’d be very irresponsible of me to put them in a dangerous situation trying to fight a fire with an escaped leopard or a rhino.”

Smith felt the burns after his ATV ride to meet firefighters, but he said that was only the beginning of the work that needed to be done.

After traveling back onto his property, Smith was there when fire crews put out several small fires, protected structures on his land, and finally led him to Walter, the rhinoceros.

“He was scared, of course,” Smith explained. “I was just praying that it didn’t get as intense as it got where I was.”

Firefighters helped stop the flames and secured the rhino along with Donovan.

Once word spread that the other animals were safe and sound as well, Smith sought treatment for his second-degree burns that covered almost a quarter of his body.

Smith has a long road to recovery ahead while he’s in the Tampa General burn unit, but his positive outlook is unchanged.

“I’m getting better, stronger every day.”

A GoFundMe has been set up in his name to cover preliminary emergency expenses.

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