Advocating for the Animals
Joanna Fitzgerald saves Southwest Florida wildlife at von Arx Wildlife Hospital
by Kathy Grey
She started as an intern with a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This year, Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, celebrates her 25th year overseeing the rehabilitation of more than 4,000 injured, orphaned and sick native wildlife every year.
Fitzgerald passionately advocates for Southwest Florida’s native wildlife, even in the face of crises and logistical struggles such as major hurricanes — and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the Conservancy Nature Center has been closed in light of COVID-19, the von Arx Wildlife Hospital has been open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, despite the fact that vital volunteer numbers are down by half due to the “unknown-ness” of COVID, Fitzgerald says. In light of the pandemic, the hospital requires social distancing for its staff, interns and volunteers and implemented a tracking system of who has worked in which treatment room, should someone be diagnosed COVID positive.
This time of year is ordinarily one of the von Arx hospital’s busiest, because it’s baby bird and mammal season. However, the pandemic has created an additional influx of incoming injured, as locals stay local and discover more orphaned or hurt birds and animals. Fitzgerald adds that there have been more domestic pet attacks on wildlife, simply because their humans spend more time at home, allowing their pets greater yard time.
Educating the public about issues affecting wildlife is a focus for Fitzgerald, whose blog on the Conservancy website (click here) highlights patient admissions, injuries and their causes.
Early every day, she and her team check on the status of the more than 100 animals in the hospital’s care. Team members are responsible for 20 to 30 animals each shift. First, they attend to the nurseries, making sure crucial medication and feeding schedules are met for baby birds and mammals.
Then it’s time to make the hospital rounds and answer phones and messages left about critters in distress.
Community members find great solace in having the von Arx’s services available for injured and/or orphaned wildlife. Some people are brought to tears when the helplessness they feel in discovering needy wildlife can be assuaged by the von Arx, staffed by four full-time rehab staff, a veterinarian, an administrative assistant, five interns and the volunteers.
Directing the von Arx operation is a first-responder responsibility Fitzgerald shoulders with grace and determination as she finds life balance with her 14-year-old daughter, Sidney.
“Just spending time with her is relaxing. It brings me back into focus,” Fitzgerald says. “We have many pets at home … and a (rescue) puppy. He brings us pure joy.”
She releases a melodic laugh.
“We rescue all over the place.”
Click here to view a video about Fitzgerald and the scope of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital: