His name was Jay Norwood Darling. Born more than 130 years ago, the man who signed his high school yearbook with the abbreviated last name “D’ing” began his cartoonist career at his first job at an Iowa newspaper — but only when the subject of an article refused to be photographed. What followed was literally the stuff of legend: syndication in more than 125 newspapers across the U.S.; recognition for his art, political satire and environmental advocacy by two Pulitzer prizes; appointment by President Franklin Roosevelt to lead a variety of conservation efforts (including creation of the Federal Duck Stamp program); and the founding of the National Wildlife Federation, as well as what was to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Oh, and did we mention that J.N. “Ding” Darling loved Sanibel and Captiva Islands, and was a frequent vacationer here in the 1930s and 40s? In fact, thanks in part to his advocacy, more than 6,400 acres of Sanibel mangroves, bay and estuary became U.S. government property in 1945 — and 20 years later were renamed in his honor as the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States.
But that was then, and this is now at the Wildlife Refuge: more than 800,000 visitors annually, one of TripAdvisor’s most popular Sanibel attractions, the very first “discover nature” downloadable, interactive app created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, live video feeds of wildlife via internet, a new and improving Visitor Center, a mascot named “Blue Goose,” 18,000-plus social media followers and — in high season — more than 30 events, exhibits and other fun things to do each week.
“‘Ding’ Darling is exciting!” says Toni Westland, Supervisory Refuge Ranger. “People come to Sanibel for our beaches, but we want to get everyone out into nature, to enjoy our nature.
“We have 245 species of birds, another 50-some reptiles and amphibians, plus more than 30 types of mammals. For $5 per vehicle, you can visit as many times as you like during a day. This is definitely the best value on the islands!”
Toni Westland has worked at “Ding” Darling for 14 years, and is amazed at the evolution of the Refuge from simply a welcome center and five mile wildlife viewing trail to a high tech, high energy, fun filled destination that — by design of its leadership and its fundraising partner, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society — is focused on educating children and adults in wildlife conservation and preservation.
Birgie Miller, Executive Director of the Wildlife Society, feels much the same. “It truly is an amazing place doing amazing things to preserve and protect our wildlife, educating nearly a million people a year through our free education center, programs, classes, lectures and tours along Wildlife Drive,” she notes. “Participation in outdoor and educational activities has been shown to have a direct and positive impact on conservation and wildlife protection, teaching people to love and respect wildlife everywhere. As Federal funding continues to fall short, gifts to the ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Society help ensure that we can continue to protect our native and migratory wildlife for generations to come.”
And at no time during the year is the excitement greater than the annual “Ding” Darling Days which occur October 18-24 this year. It starts on Sunday with Free Family Fun Day (a $75 value for a family of four) — highlighted by native butterflies, animals and snakes; face painting; photo presentations; narrated Wildlife Drive tram tours; hands-on nature crafts; archery demonstrations; booth; shuttle service and more freebies.
Then, each day of the week continues with a different theme and events, films, clinics, demonstrations and more that reflect each theme. Of special note is the possible appearance of Heather Henson (Sesame Street’s Jim Henson’s daughter) with her life-sized Wild Puppets, plus appearances by the adult and junior winners of the U.S. and Florida Duck Stamp annual competition.
It’s Sanibel gone wild. Imagine that.
By John Sprecher