MANATEE COUNTY — After nearly four years of working together, Mixon Fruit Farms and East County wildlife rehabilitator and educator Justin Matthews have parted ways.
“We split up,” Matthews said with shrug. “We had a very heated discussion about this guy.”
Matthews pulled from a folder a photograph of a deer named Buckey — one he had raised and was keeping on the Mixon’s property as part of the wildlife refuge. Just a few weeks ago, a pack of dogs scared the deer, broke into its cage and chased it out on to the Mixon’s parking lot, where it was attacked and killed.
Mixon Fruit Farms owners Dean and Janet Mixon were out of town at the time, but the incident was caught on tape by a security camera.
Matthews said he met with the Mixons after they returned. Ultimately, the parties disagreed on safety requirements for the animals, among other things. A few meetings later, Matthews and the Mixons agreed it was better to part ways, Matthews said.
Janet Mixon declined to comment on the details of the decision but said she and Dean wish Matthews well and the death of the deer was “heartbreaking for everyone.”
Matthews said his desire to refocus on wildlife education has been building for the last year.
Although he’s spent the last four years at Mixon offering tram tours and wildlife presentations to both tourists and locals, the effort has not produced the results he had hoped to accomplish.
He also said the attention he got at Mixons made him “big-headed” and forgetful of why he started his rescue organization, Matthews Wildlife Rescue, about five years ago.
In late July 2009, Matthews staged the capture of a Burmese python in a storm drain in Bradenton and solicited the help of the fire department when the snake became agitated. The incident — thought to be real at the time — had generated national attention. Matthews held a press conference a few weeks later admitting to the lie and seeking forgiveness from the public.
“That’s when it really hit me — I’m harming my reputation and possibly other educators,” Matthews said, adding he’d also been a no-show for several scheduled presentations. “I forgot, for some reason, the people that helped me get the world of wildlife education out there.”
The stunt also led to a felony conviction.
Matthews has used the incident as an opportunity to educate children about animals and about the importance of honesty and good character, first speaking to children at Freedom Elementary School about his mistake.
Since then, Matthews said, he has spent hours lamenting his mistakes, and he recognizes his credibility is shaky at best. But, he said, he is determined to move forward and redefine himself.
Matthews said his departure from Mixons will allow him to refocus on education, which is even more important since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission last year passed a law that trappers must kill nuisance animals, rather than simply relocating them, with few exceptions.
“Educating has never been more important,” he said.
Matthews is working on plans to expand his rehabilitation facilities at his East County home and open it up for wildlife presentations and tours.
“It’ll be a small place, but it’s going to be educational,” he said. “People can bring a picnic.”
He also plans to offer his services at birthday parties — either at his facility or people’s homes — at assisted-living facilities, and hopefully schools, he said. And he’ll also be offering, on certain days, “A day of falconry,” where individuals can ride along to see how a hawk hunts.
Matthews Wildlife Rescue already has set up a Facebook page, and a friend is working on a website for the organization, he said.
Since Buckey’s death, Matthews has moved all his animals but an alligator off the Mixons’ property. The Mixons already have joined forces with another organization, Wildlife Rescue Inc., to bring in more animals and give educational tours.
“They’ve already moved some animals on the property,” Janet Mixon said. “It’s going to be a wider variety.”
The facility now has a few tortoises and owls, birds and an iguana. Janet Mixon said she hopes the group will be able to bring in an injured bobcat.
Damen Hurd, of Wildlife Inc., is being trained to conduct tours. He officially started work May 24.
“It’s going to be different,” Mixon said. “They don’t do as much letting people that close to animals. They are very educational.”
Mixon added the group plans to partner with other rescues and have them come out to the farm to do special presentations.
“I think it’s going to be kind of neat,” Janet Mixon said. “It’s going to be a changing kind of thing. There’s a lot of possibilities that are very exciting for us, but we do wish (Justin) well.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].