Staff cares for wildlife before, during, and after Hurricane Irma

By Joanna Fitzgerald | Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital

Staff member Lauren Barkley feeding a black skimmer next an LED lamp while the von Arx Wildlife Hospital was without power.

Thirty-seven gray squirrels and a gull-billed tern were among the 85 animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida the week following Hurricane Irma.

After preparing the hospital and all our patients for the storm, and evacuating 18 critical care patients that required continued care throughout the storm, the von Arx Wildlife Hospital Staff arrived at the hospital before sunrise the morning after Hurricane Irma passed over Naples.

Staff was anxious to check on the animals at the hospital, ensure they had made it through the storm, and assess the storm damage.

Our hospital and grounds were extremely fortunate; although the storm surge brought the water to the top of the hospital stairs, the hospital didn’t flood. Our outside recovery enclosures were flooded under a few feet of water but all of our animals had had been moved into the hospital to weather the storm and were safe.

Many downed trees blocked the access path to our outdoor recovery enclosures but a kayak allowed us to traverse the flood waters and assess the damage.

TOP: von Arx Wildlife Hospital Manager Jonee Miller kayaking though the flight enclosures immediately after the storm to assess Hurricane Irma’s damage. LEFT: Walkways to back flight enclosures flooded. CENTER: Downed Trees still blocking walkways two days after storm. RIGHT: Volunteer Camron cleaning the walkways so staff could safely return animals to outdoor enclosures.

Several recovery enclosures were missing siding and roof panels but the majority of the enclosures would be habitable once the water receded.

Hospital staff expected a high volume of squirrel admissions because fall is the height of breeding season for grey squirrels in Southwest Florida. Staff knew Irma’s high winds and heavy rains, as well as the extensive tree damage, had to have taken a toll on nestling gray squirrels. We weren’t surprised when people immediately began showing up with injured animals they had found while clearing debris from their yards and homes.

*Video made while the von Arx Wildlife Hospital was still without power

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Eleven of the 37 grey squirrels were admitted on September 11th. Some arrived as single orphans and others arrived with their entire litter intact.

The majority of the squirrels were very young — most still had their eyes closed and were barely furred. Many of the babies were in such bad condition; they were wet and cold and had suffered internal injuries.

The concern shown by the multitude of rescuers was truly heartwarming. People shared stories of damage to their own homes yet they couldn’t ignore these helpless creatures that were suffering as well.

Each new patient received a physical exam, was prescribed a treatment plan and was placed in an animal intensive care unit to warm and rest. All available intensive care units were soon occupied and proved their worth. Within an hour of being warmed many of the baby squirrels began to show improvement. The babies were more alert and, although they were weak and battered, all were eager to be syringe fed electrolytes and formula.

Hurricane Irma was a powerful storm yet nearly 70% of the squirrel nestlings admitted after Irma survived and are thriving.

The gull-billed tern, along with a black skimmer, a brown pelican, a sandwich tern, and several other shorebirds were also injured in the hurricane. The strength of the storm was apparent in the dire condition these birds arrived in at the hospital.

These birds suffered traumatic injuries such as fractured wings, head trauma and internal damage. Knowing the conditions these birds had endured and watching them struggle to survive inspired each staff member to give their all even though staff faced the challenges of no electricity or water and storm damage to their own homes.

Having so many members of our community support our efforts also inspired us and truly left us in awe of the generosity we were shown. So many people helped after the storm that it is impossible to individually thank everyone.

While the hospital was not a pleasant work environment without power or a functioning water system, several of our volunteers, who had not evacuated and could make it to the hospital, showed up every day after the hurricane. These wonderful people divided their time between their own needs and that of their neighbors and helping us care for our wildlife patients.

Local support and support from the online community through our social media outlets brought donations of supplies that kept our hospital functioning and operational.

Local vendors provided warm meals to staff that literally gave us the strength to keep working even though certain days seemed endless.

Personally, I need to thank my entire staff and the interns who pushed themselves to their limits. Their passion and dedication to help wildlife in need knows no bounds. Staff stayed positive and drew strength from each other and made me incredibly proud to be part of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital team.

Von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff members feed several of the critical patients they took with them in order to provide care and feedings during Hurricane Irma.

Recent Releases

Once the weather had cleared, a Florida box turtle, a striped mud turtle, three Florida softshell turtles, a common nighthawk, and eastern screech owl, two gopher tortoises, three eastern cottontails, a white ibis, a blue jay, three peninsula cooters, a chicken turtle, a northern cardinal, two mourning doves, four grey squirrels and four mottled ducks were released.

Opportunities to Help

Please visit the Conservancy website at to view all of the amazing volunteer opportunities at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Volunteers help in many different capacities and are vital to the success of our work. One area we are in constant need of volunteers is the evening shift. The shift runs from 5pm to 9pm; if you think you could dedicate one evening a week to help in the hospital, contact our volunteer office and get involved. Your volunteer time, donations, and memberships truly help us continue our work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future.

Joanna Fitzgerald is director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Call 239–262–2273 or see