NAPLES (FOX 13) - NAPLES (FOX 13) - The owner of a wildlife preserve in Naples is recovering at Tampa General Hospital after suffering serious burns after rushing into a raging wildfire to save a rhinoceros and other exotic animals.
The fires, which consumed about 7,000 acres in Collier County, spread to the NGALA Wildlife Preserve late last week.
"We got the call [from firefighters], 'you have like 30 minutes to get out of here,'" said Donovan Smith, who is the preserve's co-owner.
Smith said he and his staff loaded up more than 40 animals including a giraffe and zebra but he realized the rhino, named Walter, was on the other side of his 42-acre facility.
Smith told FOX 13 he hopped on his ATV and raced through flames as high as 70-feet to help the rhinoceros.
"Before you know it it's intense. It's like being in an oven," he said. "You can't turn around because you could stall or be in harm's way or things could be worse behind you so you just kept going for it."
He said he could feel the fire burning his skin, but he didn't stop. Walter, who is 8 years old, was terrified when his owner arrived.
"Walter was flipping out, rightfully so," Smith said, "and 7,000 pounds moving, you can feel it moving the ground and I called him and he came over to me and I comforted him."
He stayed with the rhino until firefighters had the flames under control.
Smith eventually ended up at TGH with second-degree burns on about 20-percent of his body. Doctors performed surgery and three skin grafts.
By Tuesday many of the animals were returned to the park. Smith came through surgery at around the time the animals were settling back in.
In a Facebook post, Smith thanked his friends for their kindness and generosity.
He wrote that it was, "worth enduring the pain to protect my animals! From the bottom of my Heart...Thank You!"
By Thursday, Smith was feeling fortunate he and his animals all survived.
"Was I afraid that that would be the day? Absolutely. Had the thought occurred to me I might not get to see my kids again? Yeah," he said. "But I also have confidence in my own world that if today is my last day...I'm blessed to be who I am."
The wildfires in Collier County forced the evacuations of about 7,000 residents and burned down four homes including one across the street from NGALA Wildlife Preserve.