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Fire kills "nearly all of the animals" at Florida wildlife center: "They didn't deserve this"

An early-morning fire on Thursday killed nearly all the animals at a wildlife center in Madeira Beach, near St. Petersburg on Florida's Gulf Coast, the center's owner and officials said.

The Madeira Beach Fire Department told CBS News that crews arrived at the fire shortly after 3 a.m. local time on Thursday at the Alligator and Wildlife Discovery Center. Fire Chief Clint Belk said crews were forced to shift to a "defensive operation" due to deteriorating conditions and the blaze was under control in about 45 minutes.

"We suffered from a tragic fire last night. Nearly all of the animals are gone. We are devastated," a post on the wildlife center's Facebook page said.

Sonny Flynn, who owns the center, told CBS affiliate WTSP   that all of the mammals inside the building died and many of the reptiles were injured. Small mammals, lizards, amphibians, turtles and tortoises, fresh and saltwater marine life, and alligators were among the 250 animals at the center.

"They didn't deserve this. This is my whole life," Flynn told the station. "They all have names, they all have personality, I come in every morning and talk to them like Dr. Dolittle."

Flynn said about 95% of the animals at the center were "pet surrenders because people didn't know how to take care of them, or they weren't able to take care of them."

Madeira Beach Fire Department Fire Chief Clint Belk told news outlets that crews were met with heavy fire and smoke at the front of the building.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office deputies said the blaze impacted both the wildlife center and a restaurant, WTSP reported.

An investigation is underway to determine the cause.

Founded in 2011, the center says it has changed its focus to education and conservation, according to its website.

"Our immediate goal is the provision of humane, professional care for pet surrenders and orphaned native wildlife that cannot be safely returned to the wild," the center says.

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